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Metagame Mentor: The Pioneer Decks We'll See with Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor

February 08, 2024
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 Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor kicks off in two weeks at MagicCon: Chicago, today is a good time to dive into its Constructed format: Pioneer. In this article, I will cover the latest state of the format, as well as the most promising new cards from Murders at Karlov Manor.

The Pioneer Metagame in January 2024

Pioneer is the nonrotating format based on expansion and core sets from Return to Ravnica forward, 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.

To grasp the latest state of the format, I analyzed over 2,000 available decklists from all events held on Magic Online and Melee from January 6, 2024 through February 5, 2024. I awarded points to each deck equal to its rectified number of net wins (i.e., its number of match wins minus losses if positive and zero otherwise). So, a deck that went 6-1 gets 5 points, and a deck that went 1-3-drop gets 0 points. Each archetype's share of total rectified net wins can then be interpreted as its share of the winner's metagame that you can expect to see at the top tables.

Archetype Winner's Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Midrange 15.8%
2. Izzet Phoenix 15.2% ↑↑
3. Azorius Control 11.5% ↑↑
4. Amalia Combo 8.9%
5. Lotus Field Combo 7.7% ↑↑
6. Quintorius Combo 4.5% ↑↑
7. Mono-Black Midrange 3.2% ↑↑
8. Niv to Light 2.8% ↑↑
9. Izzet Ensoul 2.6% ↑↑
10. Boros Convoke 2.6% ↓↓
11. Enigmatic Fires 2.5%
12. Abzan Greasefang 2.4%
13. Rakdos Sacrifice 2.3% ↓↓
14. Mono-Red Aggro 2.2%
15. Atarka Red 1.6%
16. Waste Not 1.4%
17. Omnath to Light 1.4%
18. Boros Heroic 1.1%
19. Gruul Vehicles 1.1% ↓↓
20. Other 9.2%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing, representative decklist. The "Other" category included Enigmatic Control, Azorius Spirits, Bant Spirits, Grixis Phoenix, Izzet Creativity, Dimir Rogues, Spelunking Scapeshift, Azorius Whir, Rona Lukka Combo, Azorius Lotus Field, Selesnya Angels, Merfolk, Elementals, Izzet Transmogrify, and various other decks.

The Pioneer format has been through considerable changes recently, including the release of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, the ban of Karn, the Great Creator, and the unban of Smuggler's Copter. In my last Pioneer article from December 2023, I analyzed the U.S. Regional Championship and the Top 10 Pioneer stories from 2023. Since then, as indicated by the arrows in the table above, the metagame has continued to develop. Many of the changes can be attributed to the emergence of Amalia Combo—the hottest new deck to come out of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan—as well as the persistent supremacy of Izzet Phoenix and Azorius Control. Decks with good matchups against the new top tier of the metagame have ticked up, while poorly positioned decks have ticked down. As the metagame is in flux, the field is wide open going into the Pro Tour, and Murders at Karlov Manor looks to shake things up even further.

The Top 10 Pioneer Deck Archetypes

To take a closer look at the 10 archetypes with the highest winner's metagame share over the past month, I've used a decklist aggregation algorithm that takes into account the popularity, performance, and synergy of individual card choices. This should give us an idea of what to expect at the upcoming Pro Tour, and I'll add my first impressions on potential additions from Murders at Karlov Manor.

Throughout Pro Tour Phyrexia and two Regional Championship cycles, Rakdos Midrange has been the most popular Pioneer deck in 2023. It doesn't look like 2024 will be any different, as the deck retains its high individual card quality, and it was 15.8% of the winner's metagame in my data set. Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker are the most-played cards in the format, and Rakdos Midrange puts all three staples to good use. The deck recently picked up Bitter Triumph and Aclazotz, Deepest Betrayal from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, and it has reasonable game against almost everything except for Enigmatic Fires.

Smuggler's Copter

After the unban of Smuggler's Copter, Rakdos Midrange players were split on which two-mana vehicle to run. At the U.S. Regional Championship, two Rakdos Midrange decks made the Top 8, one exploiting the powerful combo of Smuggler's Copter plus Inti, Seneschal of the Sun and the other using Reckoner Bankbuster instead. I would expect to see both versions at the Pro Tour. Rakdos Midrange players were split almost evenly between the two approaches during Magic Online tournaments in January 2024, but the more traditional versions had slightly better results. This is reflected in the cluster-based aggregate list above.

Izzet Phoenix aims to recur Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard by chaining together three cheap spells in a single turn. After gaining Sleight of Hand and Picklock Prankster from Wilds of Eldraine, the deck had a breakout resurgence during the second cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships in 2023. Although Izzet Phoenix traditionally struggles against Lotus Field Combo and anti-graveyard cards like Rest in Peace, it has remained popular and powerful. Currently, it's vying for the number one spot with Rakdos Midrange, and it's clearly one of the main decks to defeat going into the Pro Tour.


Murders at Karlov Manor introduce the new surveil lands; and if they are to find a home in Pioneer, graveyard-based decks could be a natural choice. It would be sweet to surveil Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard. However, I am skeptical because entering the battlefield tapped is a huge cost; and unlike Modern, the basic land types are not much of a bonus. Fetch lands like Wooded Foothills are not legal in Pioneer, and Boseiju, Who Endures is rarely channeled against Izzet Phoenix. Still, any newly introduced nonbasic lands are always worth considering.

With a solid suite of spot removal, countermagic, card draw, sweepers, and planeswalkers, Azorius Control has remained the premier control deck in Pioneer, and its abundance of early-game sweepers means that aggro decks can be kept under wraps. Versions using Yorion, Sky Nomad as the companion proved the most successful during both cycles of Pioneer Regional Championships in 2023, culminating in Daniel Weiser's victory at the U.S. Regional Championship. As a result, the 80-card versions have become the norm, although roughly one-third of Azorius Control players still stick to 60-card versions with Kaheera, the Orphanguard or no companion at all. In any case, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan provided several upgrades: Get Lost, Restless Anchorage, and Sunken Citadel have slotted into many main decks, while Kutzil's Flanker is replacing Regal Caracal in many sideboards.


As neither Counterspell nor Mana Leak were legal in Pioneer, the deck has always had to settle for mediocre counters like Make Disappear. Murders at Karlov Manor introduces an amazing new counterspell that slots right into Azorius Control: No More Lies is a clear upgrade for the creature-light Azorius deck, and the exile clause could be relevant against Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger; Arclight Phoenix; Memory Deluge; or Return to the Ranks. I wouldn't be surprised if No More Lies is the most-played card from Murders at Karlov Manor at the Pro Tour, and it will surely cement Azorius Control as a major contender.

Amalia combo is a two-card creature combo deck that burst onto the scene after The Lost Caverns of Ixalan introduced Amalia Benavides Aguirre. If you curve Amalia 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 repeats until Amalia reaches twenty power. All other creatures are then destroyed, the loop ends, and she'll swing in for lethal. All combo pieces can be found with Collected Company and Chord of Calling, while Return to the Ranks provides protection against spot removal.

The most successful versions in January 2024 have shaved Cenote Scout and Gilded Goose while adding Kellan, Daring Traveler and Voice of Resurgence, favoring resiliency over explosiveness. These changes should improve the otherwise difficult matchup against Azorius Control. Amalia Combo is strong against creature decks such as Boros Convoke, Gruul Vehicles, and Mono-White Humans, all of which have ticked down as a result. However, since the combo is based on life gain, it struggles against Knight of Dusk's Shadow, Atarka's Command, or Rampaging Ferocidon—hence, decks that leverage these spells alongside plentiful instant-speed removal, such as Mono-Black Midrange, Izzet Ensoul, Atarka Red, and Mono-Red Aggro, have ticked up in January 2024.

Case of the Uneaten Feast

From Murders at Karlov Manor, Case of the Uneaten Feast could be a consideration for Amalia Combo. It's basically half Lunarch Veteran and half Yawgmoth's Will, helping to jumpstart the combo early on and returning the pieces after your opponent removes them. While adding a noncreature card to a deck with Collected Company, Chord of Calling, and Return to the Ranks is questionable, it's a neat option that might enable different builds of Amalia Combo.

The game plan of this combo deck is to find Lotus Field, make another copy via Thespian's Stage, and untap those lands with Hidden Strings and Pore Over the Pages. This allows you to generate a lot of mana in one turn. Emergent Ultimatum provides access to Lier, Disciple of the Drowned; Omniscience; and Dark Petition, which will usually lead to victory. With Omniscience on the battlefield, an infinite recursion loop involving Chandra, Hope's Beacon and all three Bala Ged Recovery can burn out your opponent. While the archetype has a long history, more recent versions in January 2024 have found success by including Strict Proctor in the main deck, shaving Arboreal Grazer. Strict Proctor stifles the enters-the-battlefield trigger of Lotus Field and delays Amalia Combo.

646708 646694

For Lotus Field Combo, Murders at Karlov Manor could be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is Archdruid's Charm—the first-ever unconditional three-mana effect that can put Lotus Field from your library directly onto the battlefield. The Charm also doubles as an answer to Damping Sphere after sideboard. However, the triple-green cost is difficult and may require a retooling of the mana base from the ground up. The curse is Krenko's Buzzcrusher, which doesn't target and therefore has the ability to get around the hexproof ability of Lotus Field. This could make it a potent sideboard card against Lotus Field Combo.

This combo deck uses Quintorius Kand's -3 ability to discover Spark Double. By casting it from exile, you drain the opponent for two and create a new, nonlegendary Quintorius copy to keep the chain going. As you keep finding Spark Doubles, you'll drain your opponent for four, then six, then eight, stacking up a lethal amount of triggers. There are many different options for the deck's flex slots: some use Gyruda, Doom of Depths and Clever Impersonator; others exploit Herd Migration and Release to the Wind—there is no consensus. Every mana base is different, too. But all versions have one thing in common: They couldn't exist without Quintorius Kand and Trumpeting Carnosaur from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan.

Cease // Desist

Quintorius Combo cannot run any non-combo cards with mana value 4 or less, but it still wants to affect the game early on to stay alive. Hence, cost reduction spells and split cards always deserve consideration. Murders at Karlov Manor introduces Cease // Desist, which can provide a life cushion on turn two, while not interfering with the discover loops. The attached card draw can boost the consistency of the combo, while exiling cards is useful against Izzet Phoenix.

Mono-Black Midrange is a novel addition to the Pioneer metagame in January 2024. It can be described as a Rakdos Midrange deck without the red, allowing the mana base to exploit Sunken Citadel and Castle Locthwain. You could also view it as a Waste Not deck with a reduced focus on discard effects. In any case, Mono-Black Midrange features a solid mix of efficient discard, powerful removal, and resilient threats.


From Murders at Karlov Manor, Deadly Cover-Up could be a potentially interesting addition for the sideboard. I fear its five-mana cost might be too steep, but sweeping the board while exiling all opposing copies of Arclight Phoenix, Amalia Benavides Aguirre, or Knight-Errant of Eos could provide a big edge in certain matchups.

Niv to Light is a five-color midrange deck that uses a collection of gold cards from different color pairs to maximize Niv-Mizzet Reborn. The knock-out punch is casting Bring to Light for Valki, God of Lies, which can then be cast as the powerful Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter. The deck is very similar to Omnath to Light, which uses far fewer gold cards and was more popular in 2023. However, after The Lost Caverns of Ixalan introduced Molten Collapse, Niv-Mizzet Reborn made a triumphant return.


Since Murders at Karlov Manor takes place on the plane of Ravnica, it contains numerous gold cards. This makes the set a potential gold mine for Niv-Mizzet Reborn. The most promising addition is Lightning Helix, a classic early-game removal spell that bridges to your powerful end-game. Three damage is enough to deal with Leder Shredder, Smuggler's Copter, and Wildgrowth Walker, so Lightning Helix seems well-positioned in Pioneer right now.

Izzet Ensoul is named after Ensoul Artifact, which can turn a token created by Spyglass Siren or Voldaren Epicure into a powerful 5/5 attacker. Two attacks and two Shrapnel Blast later, you will have taken your opponent down from 20 to 0 life. Although Izzet Ensoul has been a fringe Pioneer archetype for years, the unban of Smuggler's Copter and additions from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan have supercharged it. In particular, the deck expertly incorporates the combo of Inti, Seneschal of the Sun and Smuggler's Copter. Likewise, Spyglass Siren is great for enabling Gleeful Demolition into Reckless Bushwhacker.

Case of the Filched Falcon 646761

From Murders at Karlov Manor, Case of the Filched Falcon and Gleaming Geardrake could be worth considering. Although they may be a bit too mana-intensive, both of them bring along an artifact token, which is exactly what the deck wants. I'm already dreaming of soaring to victory with an indestructible 4/4 flier after animating my Darksteel Citadel with Case of the Filched Falcon.

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. After building up a big board, Knight-Errant of Eos can find Imodane's Recruiter to set up a massive attack. From The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, the deck gained Warden of the Inner Sky as a main deck synergy piece and Get Lost as a catch-all answer for the sideboard.

Novice Inspector

Boros Convoke has been on the downswing due to a poor matchup against Amalia Combo, but it could benefit from Novice Inspector out of Murders at Karlov Manor. I'm pretty sure that you would play more than four copies of Thraben Inspector if you could, and Novice Inspector allows us to do that. It adds redundancy and consistency to the deck, as 12 artifacts to support Gleeful Demolition was always a bit low.

Additional Ideas with Murders at Karlov Manor

Although I've covered various Murders at Karlov Manor cards that could be added to existing top-tier archetypes, the new set also introduces several cards that might enable brand-new archetypes or revitalize forgotten ones. Brewing new strategies is always fun, so let me highlight a few exiting ideas that I had while looking through the new cards, illustrated via a series of opening hands. Many of these ideas might not pan out in competitive Pioneer, but there is a lot of potential, and I can't wait to see what the Pro Tour competitors come up with after several weeks of testing.

Forest Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx 646772 Llanowar Elves 571522 Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner 622613

Leyline of the Guildpact allows you start the game with four devotion to green! So with an Elf on turn one, a turn-two Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx can already produce five mana. If you add Burning-Tree Emissary and Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner, then this perfect opening hand can even reach ten mana and cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger as early as turn two. That is just absurd. With Leyline of the Guildpact and Archdruid's Charm for explosiveness and consistency, could Mono-Green Devotion return?

491921 643295 574735 551741 646632 622613 Indomitable Creativity

Reenact the Crime provides another way to cast Ulamog ahead of time! You would play Fable of the Mirror-Breaker on turn three, discard Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on turn four, and target it with Reenact the Crime. It's not just a reanimation or transmogrifying spell—you get the benefit of the cast trigger as well. After exiling two of your opponent's permanents, you'll surely be able to win the game soon after. This could offer a powerful new angle to Izzet Creativity decks.

Forest Mountain 602779 Llanowar Elves The Huntsman's Redemption Anzrag, the Quake-Mole 607219

Anzrag, the Quake-Mole can produce lethal damage by turn four, even through a chump blocker! Indeed, if you play Anzrag, the Quake-Mole on turn three and use Voldaren Thrillseeker's backup ability on turn four, then you create a 10-power creature with a Fling ability. Even if your opponent has a chump blocker, Anzrag will eventually deal 20 damage when it connects. Since all cards are high-quality creatures on their own, this would be a sweet combo to slot into a Gruul Vehicles deck.

Animation Module Bartolomé del Presidio Crime Novelist 586605 Darksteel Citadel 643280 Inspiring Vantage

Crime Novelist can yield infinite power as early as turn three! With this ideal opening hand, you can sacrifice an artifact to grow Bartolomé del Presidio, which puts a +1/+1 counter on Crime Novelist and adds one red mana. This fuels into Animation Module, which creates another artifact to sustain the loop. An infinitely large Bartolomé del Presidio can then attack for the win. Three-card combos are typically too weak for competitive Pioneer, but I dare to dream.

646771 Lightning Axe Fable of the Mirror-Breaker Medomai the Ageless 643280 602780 Swamp

Lazav, Wearer of Faces can take infinite turns after its first attack! You need to cast Lazav, Wearer of Faces on turn two and have Medomai the Ageless in your graveyard by turn three, for example by discarding the Sphinx to Lightning Axe. Then you attack with Lazav, Wearer of Faces, exile Medomai the Ageless, sacrifice the created Clue, and have Lazav become a copy of Medomai the Ageless. When Lazav deals combat damage to your opponent, you'll take an extra turn, and you can repeat the process as long as there's a card in any graveyard to target.

Monastery Swiftspear Break Out Break Out Break Out 571509 643296 602779

Break Out can provide absurd starts to aggressive prowess decks! In this opening hand, if every Break Out would put Burning-Tree Emissary onto the battlefield, then you could take your opponent down to 1 life as early as turn 2! Of course, the likelihood of this happening is slim, but for aggro or combo decks that are custom-built to take advantage of the new sorcery, the ceiling is high.

Looking Ahead

As I showed, Magic's latest set offers a lot to Pioneer, and I am excited to see it all play out at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor in two weeks from now. Follow our content in the coming weeks to learn more about the competitors, the live stream, and the decks, then tune in to see a new champion hoist the trophy!

But first, this coming weekend features the Modern Regional Championships in United States, Canada, and Japan, which award dozens of invites to Pro Tour Thunder Junction in April. Between different premier events and multiple formats, it will be an exciting month for competitive Magic.

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