Skip to main content Download External Link Facebook Facebook Twitter Instagram Twitch Youtube Youtube Discord Left Arrow Right Arrow Search Lock Wreath icon-no-eye caret-down Add to Calendar download Arena copyText Info Close

Metagame Mentor: The Pioneer Showdown in Outlaws of Thunder Junction

May 23, 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. The ongoing cycle of Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs) features Pioneer as the Constructed format for in-store events, so today we'll take a close look at the hottest decks in Pioneer.

I'll provide a snapshot of the metagame, show the decks to defeat at your RCQs, and analyze the impact of Outlaws of Thunder Junction. The most important new addition has been Slickshot Show-Off, resulting in a resurgence of prowess strategies. Yet various other cards have boosted or enabled a diversity of Pioneer strategies as well, so there's plenty to cover.

The Pioneer Metagame in May 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 3,600 available decklists from competitive events held from April 25 through May 19. Specifically, I used all scheduled Pioneer tournaments on Magic Online, various events at SCG CON Richmond (Super Sunday RCQ, Friday ReCQ, Saturday ReCQ, and Sunday ReCQ), the City Class Games SuperQualifier, and RCQs at GAME ON, Fire & Dice, Hareruya Tokyo, Mulligan, CCGHouse, Mint Yokohama, Hareruya Kichijoji, Hareruya Nagoya.

To obtain a metric that combines popularity and performance, 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). Each archetype's share of total rectified net wins can be interpreted as its share of the winner's metagame. In the following table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing, representative decklist.

Archetype Winner's Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Vampires 14.3% ↓↓
2. Izzet Phoenix 12.0%
3. Niv to Light 11.5% ↑↑
4. Amalia Combo 10.3%
5. Waste Not 10.0% ↑↑
6. Gruul Prowess 6.2% ↑↑
7. Azorius Control 4.0%
8. Mono-Red Wizards 3.8% ↑↑
9. Izzet Ensoul 3.4%
10. Lotus Field Combo 2.3%
11. Mono-White Humans 2.1%
12. Quintorius Combo 1.8%
13. Boros Heroic 1.8%
14. Azorius Spirits 1.6%
15. Rakdos Midrange 1.4%
16. Dimir Control 0.9%
17. Boros Convoke 0.8%
18. Golgari Roots 0.8%
19. Temur Creativity 0.7%
20. Mono-Green Devotion 0.7%
21. Other 9.5%

The "Other" category included Mono-Red Aggro, Mono-Blue Spirits, Mono-Black Midrange, Selesnya Angels, Boros Prowess, Izzet Creativity, Abzan Greasefang, Rakdos Transmogrify, Spelunking Scapeshift, Atarka Red, Orzhov Humans, Rakdos Sacrifice, Golgari Vampires, Jeskai Creativity, Merfolk, Izzet Prowess, Enigmatic Fires, Azorius Lotus Field, Five-Color Creativity, Dimir Jewel, Mardu Heroic, Dimir Rogues, Four-Color Legends, Jeskai Control, Elves, Rakdos Madness, and more.

As indicated by the arrows in the table, the metagame has changed compared to my last snapshot from March, before the start of the RCQ cycle and the release of Outlaws of Thunder Junction. Rakdos Vampires remains on top, though as a more reasonable share of the metagame. Niv to Light and Waste Not have risen in popularity, exploiting favorable metagame conditions and new additions from Outlaws of Thunder Junction. Finally, Slickshot Show-Off has catapulted Gruul Prowess and Mono-Red Wizards forward.

The Top 5 Decks to Defeat at Your RCQs

Pioneer rewards in-depth knowledge of your deck's interactions, matchups, and strategies, so anything can win in the hands of a capable pilot, and the metagame at upcoming RCQs could be fairly diverse. But to lay down the terms of engagement, let's take a closer look at the 5 archetypes with the highest winner's metagame share over the past few weeks. To do so, I've used a decklist aggregation algorithm that takes into account the popularity, performance, and synergy of individual card choices.

Rakdos Vampires, with a 14.3% share of the winner's metagame, remains the most popular deck in Pioneer. Featuring familiar format staples like Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, it is a midrange strategy at heart, but its real power lies in the Vampire theme. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord can slam Vein Ripper onto the battlefield as early as turn three, providing a fast clock that is difficult to remove.

Although Rakdos Vampires has not gained anything from Outlaws of Thunder Junction, the card choices keep evolving. With the rise of Slickshot Show-Off decks, many decklists are slowly moving away from the harmful Bitter Triumph or the aggressive Archfiend of the Dross, instead opting for cards that stabilize or protect your life total, such as Go for the Throat; Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet; or Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. In addition, with Brazen Borrower becoming more popular in Izzet Phoenix decks to answer Leyline of the Void, various successful Rakdos Vampires players have started to favor Go Blank and Unlicensed Hearse in their sideboards instead.

Izzet Phoenix, with a 12.0% share of the winner's metagame, aims to recur Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard by chaining together three cheap spells in a single turn. Treasure Cruise is an amazing card, and Izzet Phoenix is the best Pioneer deck to exploit the powerful delve spell. Since the release of Outlaws of Thunder Junction, there have been no major developments for Izzet Phoenix decks, but it remains one of the most prominent decks in the format.

Niv to Light, which has climbed to an 11.5% share of the winner's metagame, is a five-color midrange deck. It uses a collection of gold cards from different color pairs to maximize Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Niv-Mizzet, Supreme. The knock-out punch is casting Bring to Light for Valki, God of Lies, which can then be cast as the powerful Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor. Due to a favorable matchup against Rakdos Vampires, where the five-color haymakers can go over the top, the deck has recently climbed in popularity.

Moreover, Outlaws of Thunder Junction has boosted Niv to Light with several powerful additions. Pillage the Bog is a gold spell that provides valuable card selection, akin to Demonic Tutor in the late game. Ancient Cornucopia allows you to ramp into a Dragon, while gaining enormous amounts of life along the way. And even the singleton Lilah, Undefeated Slickshot synergizes with all the gold interactive cards. To make room for these new cards, the aggregate Niv to Light deck now runs fewer Wandering Mind or Klothys, God of Destiny.

Amalia Combo, with a 10.3% share of the winner's metagame, combines several creatures to win the game in one fell swoop. If you curve Amalia into a turn-three Wildgrowth Walker and start the chain by gaining life, then Amalia explores, which triggers Wildgrowth Walker, which triggers Amalia, and so on. Eventually, Amalia reaches 20 power, all other creatures are destroyed, the loop ends, and she'll swing in for lethal.

Compared to the top-performing list at the Pro Tour, the most successful Amalia Combo players in May have been adding Extraction Specialist and Deep-Cavern Bat, providing protection and resiliency against the removal spells from Rakdos Vampires. Fauna Shaman is falling out of favor.

Waste Not, which has climbed to 10.0% of the winner's metagame, is all about discard spells. Thoughtseize, Go Blank, and Liliana of the Veil can force opponents to discard their best cards before they get to play them; and it only gets better when Waste Not rewards you with extra creatures, extra mana, or extra cards. Once the opponent's hand is empty, Geier Reach Sanitarium can close out the game by continuing to trigger Waste Not and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. Due to a favorable matchup against Izzet Phoenix, where the main deck Go Blank helps to exile their graveyard, the deck has recently climbed in popularity.

From Outlaws of Thunder Junction, singleton copies of Kaervek, the Punisher and Hostile Investigator have made it into the aggregate main deck. Between all the targeted discard and removal spells, it's easy to commit crimes, allowing Kaervek to provide flash back your disruptive spells for free value. Meanwhile, Hostile Investigator is both an enabler and a payoff for the discard strategy. To make room for these new cards, many lists have shaved Reckoner Bankbuster.

Around 95% of Waste Not decks at tournaments over the past month were mono-black. However, 5% were black-red, typically splashing red for Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger. The red splash puts substantial pressure on the mana base, but it's an interesting development.

The Most-Played Cards from Outlaws of Thunder Junction

Outlaws of Thunder Junction, along with its bonus sheet The Big Score, has had a significant impact on the Pioneer format, enabling brand new strategies and reinvigorating old ones. The following table reveals the 20 most-played new-to-Pioneer cards across the decklists I analyzed.

Card Name Total Copies Main Deck Sideboard
1. Slickshot Show-Off 2081 2052 29
2. Pillage the Bog 1001 1000 1
3. Magebane Lizard 962 0 962
4. Ancient Cornucopia 611 611 0
5. Three Steps Ahead 447 435 12
6. Hostile Investigator 386 316 70
7. Lilah, Undefeated Slickshot 319 319 0
8. Kaervek, the Punisher 297 295 2
9. Phantom Interference 239 239 0
10. Vaultborn Tyrant 231 228 3
11. Spinewoods Armadillo 223 223 0
12. Aven Interrupter 211 85 126
13. High Noon 175 54 121
14. Forsaken Miner 121 121 0
15. Scorching Shot 112 3 109
16. Jace Reawakened 97 96 1
17. Caustic Bronco 96 96 0
18. Legion Extruder 74 73 1
19. Dust Animus 71 3 68
20. Highway Robbery 68 68 0

I already covered some of these new cards while going over the top five Pioneer archetypes. Other cards offered useful upgrades for a variety of decks—for example, High Noon is a good sideboard card against Lotus Field Combo, and Spinewoods Armadillo has improved Quintorius Combo—but they didn't enable earth-shattering new play patterns or archetypes. To zoom in on cards that have had the biggest impact on the Pioneer format, let's take a closer look at the sweetest new lists and cards.

The Various Flavors of Slickshot Show-Off

Slickshot Show-Off is one of the most impressive red creatures ever printed, and it has quickly become a multi-format all-star in Standard, Pioneer, and Modern. The Bird Wizard deals enormous amounts of burst damage, can be plotted to dodge sorcery-speed removal, and has evasion to boot. The most popular decks using Slickshot Show-Off are Gruul Prowess, Mono-Red Wizards, and Boros Heroic, all of which together form over 10% of the winner's metagame in Outlaws of Thunder Junction Pioneer.

Gruul Prowess is the most popular home for Slickshot Show-Off. It's a base-red aggressive deck that combines prowess creatures and noncreature spells to pump out enormous amounts of damage in a single turn. The green splash unlocks Questing Druid, Blossoming Defense, and various other cards, all of which trigger, boost and/or protect Slickshot Show-Off. The deck differs from Atarka Red, which generally uses more creatures and global boosts like Reckless Bushwhacker and Atarka's Command.

While Slickshot Show-Off is the main Outlaws of Thunder Junction upgrade, Magebane Lizard is a useful new addition as well. The Lizard can deal a lot of damage against Lotus Field Combo or Izzet Phoenix decks, making it a strong sideboard option. Another noteworthy sideboard card, albeit not a new one, is Pick Your Poison, as it's one of the best possible answers available against Vein Ripper. As a result, Gruul Prowess stands a decent chance in every matchup.

Mono-Red Wizards features a lot of burn spells, which aim to take the opponent down to zero life as quickly as possible. The deck is another popular home for Slickshot Show-Off, making good use of its creature type. Flanked by Soul-Scar Mage and Ghitu Lavarunner, this deck has 12 Wizards to support Wizard's Lightning—the closest thing we have to Lightning Bolt in Pioneer. The deck differs from more traditional Mono-Red Aggro decks, which do not use Ghitu Lavarunner or Wizard's Lightning.

While this Mono-Red Wizards list looks fine at first glance, I do see various possibilities for improvement that I intend to try in the coming weeks. First, there is no strong incentive to stay mono-color. It would be fairly easy to splash white or green, if only for Showdown of the Skalds out of the sideboard or Questing Druid in the main deck. Second, I dislike combining this many spectacle cards with prowess creatures, as it can be hard to enable spectacle before combat. Shaving a few Light Up the Stage or Skewer the Critics could result in a better-balanced list with room for a small green splash. Finally, I believe that Jegantha, the Wellspring as a companion would be worth the sideboard slot. Since Slickshot Show-Off is a new card, I expect that it'll take some time for lists to be perfected.

Boros Heroic aims to target its own creatures with pump spells, earning heroic triggers and prowess triggers along the way. Monstrous Rage is particularly effective on the double-striking Illuminator Virtuoso. The deck has been around in Pioneer for a while, and after the release of Thunder Junction, it basically swapped out Tenth District Legionnaire to make room for Slickshot Show-Off.

Boros Heroic differs from Boros Prowess, which is a less popular deck that does not use Favored Hoplite or Defiant Strike. Boros Prowess instead looks closer to a Mono-Red Wizards deck splashing for Boros Charm, whose double-strike mode can set up surprise kills with Slickshot Show-Off. All in all, there are many flavors of Slickshot Show-Off, and the card has led to a revitalization of aggressive red strategies.

Golgari Roots with Forsaken Miner and Kaervek

Golgari Roots, with a 0.8% share of the winner's metagame, is starting to break through in Pioneer by exploiting Forsaken Miner and Kaervek, the Punisher from Outlaws of Thunder Junction. The game plan is to fill up the graveyard with Stitcher's Supplier or Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler before activating Agatha's Soul Cauldron or Deathrite Shaman to commit a crime. This returns Forsaken Miner to the battlefield, which triggers Insidious Roots, which provides additional fuel for Priest of Forgotten Gods.

Once all pieces are in place, it's a strong engine that can overpower any creature-based strategy. Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler untaps Priest of Forgotten Gods, which can sacrifice Forsaken Miner and target the opponent, immediately allowing you to return Forsaken Miner to the battlefield. In the process, you're triggering Insidious Roots, whose ever-growing Plant tokens can immediately tap for mana thanks for Tyvar. While you're on a crime spree, Kaervek, the Punisher can put that mana to good use. Golgari Roots is still under the radar, but SwiftWarkite2 used it to win Magic Online Challenge this past weekend, and the deck shouldn't be underestimated.

Dimir Control with Three Steps Ahead and Jace

Dimir Control is a time-honored Pioneer archetype with a 0.9% share of the winner's metagame over the past month, but it received a boost from Outlaws of Thunder Junction. Three Steps Ahead is arguably the best Cancel variant ever, and Jace Reawakened unlocks new possibilities.

The planeswalker's draw-and-discard ability allows you to fill your graveyard for Cling to Dust and Deadly Cover-Up, but the real draw is its plot ability. Jace allows you to plot Valki, God of Lies and cast it on the next turn as Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor—a powerful and mana-efficient combo that has added a new angle to Dimir Control.

Temur Creativity with Vaultborn Tyrant and Phantom Interference

Phantom Interference is not only an effective two-mana counter but also a convenient way to create a creature token. This makes it the perfect enabler for Indomitable Creativity strategies. After the release of Outlaws of Thunder Junction, the classic Izzet Creativity deck has mostly disappeared, while the novel Temur Creativity version soared of 0.7% of the winner's metagame.

Green is for the new Creativity target: Vaultborn Tyrant. Unlike Torrential Gearhulk, it does not need a payoff card in the graveyard. It's also easier to hardcast than Atraxa, Grand Unifier when drawn naturally, and casting Indomitable Creativity for X=2 or more is actually quite appealing. Multiple Tyrants see each other, resulting in an enormous life swing, a fresh grip, and a battlefield presence that shrugs off removal spells with ease.

Mono-Green Devotion with Outcaster Trailblazer

After the ban of Karn, the Great Creator this past December, many players had written off Mono-Green Devotion in Pioneer, but recent additions have brought it back into the limelight. After Murders at Karlov Manor introduced Leyline of the Guildpact, Outlaws of Thunder Junction unveiled Outcaster Trailblazer. With these new cards, Mono-Green reached 0.7% of the winner's metagame over the past month, and Azax used it to take down a Magic Online Challenge this past weekend.

Outcaster Trailblazer can be plotted to ramp into Cavalier of Thorns or Storm the Festival ahead of time, and its triggered ability will draw a card when Old-Growth Troll or Cavalier of Thorns enter the battlefield. In a way, it's almost like playing eight copies of Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner. Mono-Green Devotion is still a viable option to take to your Pioneer RCQs.

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

This coming weekend, we'll have Standard Regional Championships for five different regions: Europe, Middle East & Africa, Japan/South Korea, Australia/New Zealand, China, and Chinese Taipei. All Regional Champions, as well as the finalist in Europe and Japan, receive an invitation to Magic World Championship 30—the crown jewel of Magic organized play. As we count down the weeks leading up to that tournament in late October, each week I'm taking a look at a great deck from a past Magic World Championship.

At the 2003 World Championship, a total of 311 competitors from 54 countries came to Berlin to compete across Standard, Draft, and Extended, In the end, Germany's Daniel Zink claimed the trophy on his home turf, using a "Wake" deck in Standard.

Twelve months prior, at the 2002 World Championships that I covered last week, the Standard rounds were dominated by Blue-Black Psychatog decks with four copies of Counterspell. Counterspell dominated the game for ten years, being one of the few cards that was reprinted in every core set up to Seventh Edition. Over the years, it used to compete with cards like Balance, Necropotence, Hymn to Tourach, Survival of the Fittest, and Tinker. But after these rotated out and the power level of Standard diminished, it was finally time to say goodbye to the iconic permission spell. Counterspell was not reprinted in Eighth Edition, and consequently the days of Blue-Black Psychatog were over.

The Standard metagame at the 2003 World Championship featured iconic decks like Blue-Green Madness (using Wild Mongrel and Basking Rootwalla) and Goblins (using Skirk Prospector and Goblin Warchief) that would stick around in competitive formats for a long time. Yet the breakout deck of the tournament was built Mirari's Wake. The Wake archetype not only won the tournament but also propelled numerous players to undefeated Standard records, and half of the Top 8 was using the eponymous enchantment.

35057 34473 45141

A control deck at heart, Wake would use Mana Leak and Wrath of God to keep the opponent at bay until it had a chance to slam Mirari's Wake, which would double your mana. On subsequent turns, you would typically sift through your deck with Compulsion, cast Moment's Peace to stay alive, and ramp further ahead until you found Decree of Justice for the win. With Mirari's Wake on the battlefield, it could single-handedly create a lethal force of tokens.

The deck had zero creature cards in the main deck, blanking opposing spot removal spells, but it could transform after sideboard. The German list list had Anurid Brushhopper and Exalted Angel, which could be brought in to punish opponents who would take out all of their creature removal spells. Anurid Brushhopper had the perfect power and toughness to level Call of the Herd, which Dutch players were using in the sideboard of their version of Wake. This allowed Daniel Zink to emerge victorious in Wake mirrors in the Top 8.

Daniel Zink, 2003 Magic World Championship

Transformational strategies are still being used today, and they serve to make sideboarding more challenging for opponents. For example, many Azorius Control decks in Pioneer have creatures like Regal Caracal in their sideboard. As a general piece of advice, you should always try to sideboard against your opponent's expected post-board configuration, not their Game 1 configuration. As a result, you'll sometimes want to make the counterintuitive choice of boarding in creature removal spells against a deck with zero creatures in their main deck.

While the 10th Magic World Championship was a memorable tournament, the upcoming 30th edition will take place later this year at MagicCon: Las Vegas. There, you can cheer on your favorite World Championship competitors or enjoy ticketed play, amazing panels, or incredible experiences all weekend long. MagicCon: Las Vegas has something for everyone.

The ticketed play schedule at MagicCon: Las Vegas is brimming with exciting events. For competitive Limited players, the $100K Limited Open and Limited Pro Tour Qualifiers are large multi-day tournaments that are reminiscent of the old Grand Prix events, as they reward top performers with direct access to the Pro Tour. For competitive Modern players, the headline event is the Secret Lair Showdown, which awards unique and coveted prizes. Get your badge and lock in your tournaments today!

Share Article