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Metagame Mentor: The Final Pioneer Update for 2022

December 22, 2022
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. Today, I'll cover the Regional Championships for the West Canada and Mexico/Central America/Caribbean regions. The format for these tournaments, held on December 10-11 and December 17-18 respectively, was Pioneer.

Top eligible players from these Regional Championships earned an invitation to the first Pro Tour in 2023, called Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Is One and held during MagicCon: Philadelphia on February 17-19. But you don't have to be qualified for the Pro Tour to enjoy this festival, as it offers something for everyone. You can take a picture with The Weatherlight, attend panels with special guests, participate in a Limited PTQ that qualifies directly for the second Pro Tour in May, and so on. MagicCon: Philadelphia celebrates all things Magic: The Gathering, and it has double the space of MagicCon: Vegas. Don't miss out on your ticket!

Congratulations to the Two Regional Champions!

Joseph Karani, whose biggest previous Magic accomplishment was a victory at Grand Prix Indianapolis 2019, won the F2F Tour Championship Calgary (i.e., the West Regional Championship for Canada) on December 11 with Rakdos Midrange. His triumph comes with an invitation for Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Is One and for World Championship XXIX!

You can find the Top 8 bracket, photos, and more on the West Canada Regional Championship coverage page.

Over the last few Regional Championship weekends, Rakdos Midrange was the most popular deck by far, and this global trend continued in Canada. Joseph Karani touted the deck's consistency, high card quality, and raw power of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse: "Card's busted."

A relatively new trend for Rakdos Midrange is the inclusion of main deck Reckoner Bankbuster. The vehicle helps grind in the attrition-heavy mirror matches, and it's well-positioned in a metagame where Rakdos Midrange is the most popular deck. You have to be ready for the mirror match, and Reckoner Bankbuster helps with that.

Semifinalist Daniel Fournier even ran the four copies of Reckoner Bankbuster in his 75. "It's a split card Heart of Kiran // Ancestral Recall," he explained. "Only it has fuse."

Brandon Ortiz, a 28-year-old player from Mexico, won The Gathering Final Showdown (i.e., the Regional Championship for Mexico/Central America/Caribbean) on December 18 with Keruga Fires. His victory comes with an invitation for Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Is One and for World Championship XXIX!

You can find the Top 8 bracket, photos, and more on the Mexico/Central America/Caribbean Regional Championship coverage page. Additionally, Spanish-language video coverage of the Top 8 is available on Youtube.

Fires of Invention essentially doubles up your mana while allowing you to spend your lands on Kenrith, the Returned King's activated abilities. Decks based around this enchantment were a good choice for the metagame, and the finals in Mexico City was a Fires of Invention mirror match! In the finals, Brandon Ortiz's Keruga Fires defeated Alonso Mijares' Enigmatic Fires, but both players got there by cleverly trying to target the most popular deck in the metagame.

To regular readers of this column, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Three weeks ago, I wrote: "If [Rakdos Midrange] remains on top, then I'd expect players to flock towards Fires of Invention; Skysovereign, Consul Flagship; or other cards that line up well." Two weeks ago, I reinforced that the black and red part of the color pie is traditionally weak to enchantments and that Fires of Invention is one of the best ways to overpower Rakdos Midrange.

Between the two variants, Enigmatic Fires had a higher winrate against the field as a whole and feels more intrinsically powerful, but Keruga Fires may be favored in the head-to-head. In any case, the key lesson to take away is that Rakdos Midrange, like any archetype in Pioneer, is beatable, and Fires of Invention is a good way to do so.

The Metagame and Win Rates

Based on all decklists from the two Regional Championships held over the past two weekends, I determined the combined metagame share of every archetype. I also calculated their non-mirror, non-bye, non-draw match win rates. I used my own algorithms and definitions to assign archetype labels, thereby sidestepping any potential mislabeling on MTG Melee. Let's take a look!

Archetype Percentage of Field Match Win Rate
1. Rakdos Midrange 20.4% 52.1%
2. Mono-Green Devotion 11.9% 45.1%
3. Mono-White Humans 11.4% 54.0%
4. Gruul Vehicles 6.4% 57.0%
5. Izzet Phoenix 6.1% 40.9%
6. Azorius Control 5.8% 50.9%
7. Abzan Greasefang 5.0% 47.2%
8. Lotus Field combo 3.4% 53.3%
9. Mono-Blue Spirits 2.9% 57.8%
10. Enigmatic Fires 2.7% 56.0%
11. Rakdos Sacrifice 2.7% 51.2%
12. Selesnya Angels 2.1% 45.5%
13. Bant Spirits 2.1% 39.7%
14. Mono-Black Midrange 1.6% 56.1%
15. Keruga Fires 1.6% 33.3%
16. Mono-Red Aggro 1.3% 38.2%
17. Esper Greasefang 0.8% 58.3%
18. Atarka Red 0.8% 50.0%
19. Selesnya Auras 0.8% 45.5%
20. Other 10.1% 45.5%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist close to the aggregate of that archetype. The "Other" category included such deck archetypes as Azorius Lotus Field, Elves, Dimir Oracle, Izzet Prowess, Izzet Creativity, Esper Control, Grixis Midrange, Niv to Light, Boros Heroic, Jund Sacrifice, Metalwork Colossus, Azorius Spirits, Bant Company, Selesnya Company, Tibalt's Trickery, Azorius Humans, Possibility Storm, Jund Midrange, Grixis Prowess, Grinning Ignus combo, Golgari Midrange, Mono-Black Aggro, Gruul Ramp, and Acererak combo.

The overall metagame at these Regional Championships was quite similar to the one from earlier this month, showing that regional metagame differences are relatively small. Magic is a global game indeed. The most notable development is an uptick in Gruul Vehicles, including a new variant with main deck Werewolf Pack Leader, while Izzet Phoenix and Azorius Control plunged somewhat.

In terms of win rates against the field, Gruul Vehicles stands out positively again. Mono-Black Midrange, which can be summarized as Rakdos Midrange with Gifted Aetherborn and Invoke Despair instead of Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, is a promising newcomer too. However, sample sizes are small. For example, for Rakdos Midrange the data gives 95% confidence that its true win rate against the field lies in the interval from 47.5% and 56.7%. Due to this wide range, it's hard to draw significant conclusions about performance.

The only exception is Izzet Phoenix, which has really been struggling lately, especially against Rakdos Midrange or Mono-White Humans. The raw power of its engine is still there, and the deck can still excel in the hands of a world-class technical player. Nevertheless, the current metagame is hostile to graveyards due to the presence of Go Blank, Rest in Peace, and so on. This means that Izzet Phoenix may need to reinvent itself or wait until the metagame cycles back to a more favorable spot.

Spice Corner

Although the top tables at Pioneer tournaments will largely be populated by Rakdos Midrange, Mono-Green Devotion, and Mono-White Humans, there are many other innovations to pay attention to. It's always exciting to see brewers do well with their own creations, so let's check out the spiciest decks that earned a Pro Tour invite in Calgary or Mexico City.

While Abzan Greasefang remains the most popular combo deck in Pioneer, Michael Knie had been playing his Esper combo-control variant since Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Rather than green self-mill cards, he relies on discard effects to put Parhelion II into the graveyard. Also, his list has no backup aggro/midrange plan, as it doesn't include Ledger Shredder or Raffine's Informant. Instead, he has a control plan with Faithful Mending, Collective Brutality, and Supreme Verdict. With his fresh take on the Greasefang strategy, Michael Knie felt he had to prove how viable and good it really is.

And prove it he did. With a second-place finish at the Regional Championship in Calgary, Michael Knie proved that Greasefang decks don't need to be Abzan and don't need an aggro/midrange backup plan.

"Splinter Twin was one of the most powerful archetypes in Modern, and it was a control-combo shell," he explained in his tournament report. "Therefore I believed that I could leverage playing control in a combo shell with Greasefang ... it is just my philosophy as a player and how I saw I could attack the Pioneer format."

To me, accomplishments like these show that Pioneer remains underexplored and that Esper Greasefang, when built correctly, is at least on equal footing with Abzan Greasefang.

Over the course of the Regional Championship season, Gruul Vehicles has emerged as a top-tier strategy that is well-positioned against Rakdos Midrange and Mono-White Humans. While most builds have looked alike with little innovation, Violet Davies showed that there is another way to succeed with a Karplusan Forest deck: by curving Werewolf Pack Leader into Reckless Stormseeker.

The addition of the double-green card, which replaced a combination of Scavenging Ooze and The Akroan War in the "stock" Gruul Vehicles list, required a few cuts: several Mutavault from the main deck and Jegantha, the Wellspring from the sideboard. Even though these cuts hurt, Werewolf Pack Leader provides a more aggressive stance, which is particularly important against decks like Abzan Greasefang or Lotus Field combo where speed is of the essence.

With this novel take on the archetype, Violet Davies finished in the Top 8 of the Regional Championship in Calgary. A player best known as HappySandwich narrowly missed the Top 8 with almost the same list.

Having spent quite a bit of time on this archetype myself, I do believe that the loss of Jegantha hurts substantially against midrange or control decks, but Werewolf Pack Leader is a valid alternative approach in the right metagame. As suggestions to improve this version, I would consider adding Embercleave to the main deck, perhaps instead of an Esika's Chariot and Obliterating Bolt. This is inspired by fellow Hall of Famer Willy Edel's version that actually predates the emergence of the archetype as we know it today. In addition, I would tweak the mana base: I would cut Den of the Bugbear for Mountain, as you can't have Den of the Bugbear enter untapped if you cast turn two Werewolf Pack Leader, I would consider shaving another Mutavault for an additional colored lands if I add Embercleave, and I would balance the loss of the creature lands by adding more Lair of the Hydra.

Yet regardless of the exact build, Gruul Vehicles is a good way to prey on the dominance of Rakdos Midrange.

Elves ramps ahead with Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves in the early game, boosts the team with Elvish Clancaller and Leaf-Crowned Visionary in the mid-game, and wins by casting Chord of Calling for Shaman of the Pack in the late game.

Although the archetype had not seen much competitive success in Pioneer yet, Scott Polsky took his pet deck to the semifinals of the Regional Championship in Calgary, earning a Pro Tour invite. "Elves is the one deck I've played in every possible format from Pauper to Pioneer and Modern," he explained.

To me, this shows that Pioneer is a format where long-term deck familiarity is more important than raw deck strength. The advantage of picking a deck with a few more percentage points against the field in theory is relatively small, whereas deck-specific expertise can give a bigger edge. Experience with a deck will be particularly important when you face situations or matchups you've never seen before, as it helps you figure game plans and sideboard strategies on the fly. In that sense, Pioneer is closer to Modern than it is to Standard. In short, pick a deck you like, and get really good at it. It surely worked for Scott Polsky!

Looking Ahead

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Regional Championship in China was postponed and is now scheduled to take place this coming weekend, split across four different locations. You can follow these four events on MTG Melee here, here, here, and here.

As this first round of Regional Championships is drawing to a close, let's put all the event types in the new organized play system into perspective, with an eye on 2023.

Working our way from the bottom to the top:

  • Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs): RCQs for the second round of Regional Championships are now in the rear-view window. After a holiday break, RCQs from January 7, 2023 through April 3, 2023 will feed the third round of Regional Championships. Don't miss your chance to qualify by finding tournaments on the Store & Event Locator or your regional organizer's website.
  • Regional Championships (RCs): The first round of these major events is almost over, but they happen three times per year. Each time, they are scheduled approximately one to three months before their corresponding Pro Tour. The second round of RCs, featuring the Standard format, takes place in February, March, or April 2023, depending on your region. The third round of RCs, featuring the Pioneer format, takes place in May, June, or July 2023.
  • Pro Tours (PTs): The first Pro Tour in 2023, called Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Is One, will be held during MagicCon: Philadelphia on February 17-19. That's where you might see all the players whose decks I highlighted in today's article. The format for that Pro Tour will be Pioneer and Phyrexia: All Will Be One Draft. Subsequently, the second Pro Tour will be held during MagicCon: Minneapolis on May 5-7, and the third Pro Tour will be held at the MagicCon in Europe in July.
  • World Championship: Magic World Championship XXIX will be held on September 22-24, 2023 at MagicCon: Las Vegas. The field of competitors, who will vie for the total prize pool of $1,000,000, will extend to around 128 competitors. I've already congratulated several Regional Champions on their World Championship invite, and top finishers at future Regional Championships, Arena Championships, MOCS, and Pro Tours from the 2022-23 season will also be invited.

High-level tabletop Magic is back, and it will be even better in 2023 with the return the Pro Tour. The first round of Regional Championships has shown the joy of returning to in-person tournaments and high-stakes competition. Top finishers paved their paths to the Pro Tour, pushed the Pioneer metagame forward, and will have the chance to test their mettle against the best of the best at Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Will Be One. Congratulations once again to all top finishers from the Regional Championships, and I look forward to following your competitive journeys next year!

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