My experience with Pioneer has been fairly limited, though funnily enough, it was also the format of the last major tournament I competed in. In January 2020, I played in Grand Prix Nagoya, which was the first Pioneer Grand Prix alongside the Grand Prix in Brussels that also ran on the same weekend. I played Mono Black Aggro deck, which was one of the more popular decks at the time, and ended up losing my win-and-in for Day Two. A few months later, in mid-2020, while we were locked down at home due to the pandemic, I picked up Pioneer again on Magic Online and decided to start playing Izzet Ensoul. At the time, I had a lot of success with the deck as it was one of the few decks that had a good Blue-Black Inverter matchup, and I ended up falling in love with the archetype as it’s the kind of strategy I love playing.
This was the decklist I was playing at the time:
After the return of the Pro Tour and the inaugural Pioneer season was announced, I decided that this was the first deck I wanted to explore. A quick search on MTG Goldfish showed that the archetype hadn’t put up results on Magic Online in quite some time, but I also felt that the deck gained a few key cards in recent sets that people may have overlooked.
When I was playing this deck two years ago, there were two key issues in the main-deck. The first was the lack of good two-drop creatures. Most of the stock lists at the time played Steel Overseer, but I found the card to be simply too slow and susceptible to removal, so I switched to Scrapheap Scrounger, which obviously wasn’t great in a deck without black sources, but at least it could reliably attack on its own and could become a five-power threat with a Ghostfire Blade.
The second key issue was the two “flex” slots, where I played Emry, Lurker of the Loch. Simply put, the card just wasn’t very good. I did toy with a number of different cards in this slot, from Wild Slash to Stubborn Denial to Metallic Rebuke, but all of them were underwhelming and Emry was simply the least disappointing of the lot.
After I decided to explore the archetype again, my first course of action was to look up what were the new cards that had been printed since I last played the deck, as well as see what metagame developments there had been since then. The following was what I found:
White had gained a number of cards that would fit the archetype well. This included Ingenious Smith, Michiko’s Reign of Truth and Portable Hole. However, White’s key problem is the manabase. Blue-Red has access to four dual lands while Blue-White only has two – Hallowed Fountain and Hengegate Pathway. The deck’s manabase is not good because you don’t want to play more than twenty-one lands, and four of them need to be Darksteel Citadel. I think you could explore a Blue-White version of the deck by playing four Mana Confluence, but I decided to shelve the idea for now, especially as I wasn’t even convinced all these cards could make up for the loss of Shrapnel Blast and Red has access to better sideboard cards.
Blue-Black Inverter was no longer a deck since Inverter of Truth was banned, while 5c Niv-Mizzet and Bant Spirits were now a much smaller part of the metagame than it used to be. On the other hand, Naya Winota and Blue-Red Phoenix were two decks that were now a big part of the metagame, while Mono Red was more popular with the printing of Chandra, Dressed to Kill.
The deck gained a number of key cards. What stood out to me the most were the two good two-drops that were printed in the form of Patchwork Automaton and Lizard Blades, as well as the printing of The Blackstaff of Waterdeep, which could act as additional and more flexible, albeit weaker, copies of Ensoul Artifact. I also thought Mindlink Mech was an interesting card that could work in the deck – there are only so many three drops you can play and it was likely going to be worse than Skilled Animator, but it could be good if combined with Bomat Courier/Gingerbrute or the previously mentioned Lizard Blades.
In addition to Lizard Blades, there were a number of other red cards I liked. Voltage Surge was the most obvious one – it was just better than Wild Slash as the latter seldom went to the face, while having the option to kill Wionta, Joiner of Forces or Thing in the Ice was invaluable.
I also liked Burning Hands as a sideboard option for the Green Devotion matchup.
Based on this, I put together an initial list, and played a bunch of games with a friend who had built up most of the top decks in the format. After running it through the gauntlet, the following was the list I came to:
I wasn’t sure which two-drop was better between Patchwork Automaton and Lizard Blades, so I initially tried a split. I quickly found that the red creature was in fact much better in this deck.
The main problem with Patchwork Automaton was simply that this deck doesn’t actually trigger it all that often. You usually try to play out your artifact creatures on the first two turns, and then from turn three onwards you want to play cards like Ensoul Artifact and Skilled Animator to buff your creatures, but unfortunately these cards aren’t artifacts. On the other hand, Lizard Blades works incredibly well with these cards.
An Ensoul Artifact or Skilled Animator with the new two-drop is a ten-damage threat on turn three, and even with The Blackstaff of Waterdeep it’s an eight-damage threat. It also works well as an equipment, as you can give one of your existing five-power creatures double strike. It’s especially potent when combined with Ornithopter or Gingerbrute as they are evasive threats.
In the games I played, I commonly cast a Lizard Blades on turn four and equipped it to my five-power Ornithopter to fly over for ten damage. The only drawback of Lizard Blades is that it is not colorless, which means you cannot equip Ghostfire Blade to it for one mana.
I initially started with two copies of The Blackstaff of Waterdeep and I was quickly impressed. Like Ghostfire Blade, the card turns each of your creatures into a threat, as even if they kill your creature, you can buff a different creature. It’s also an artifact itself, so you can turn it into a creature with Ensoul Artifact or Skilled Animator. I would definitely play four copies if it wasn’t legendary, but as it is, I decided to stick with three. I was happy to cut a Skilled Animator for it, as the three-drop creature can often be clunky in multiples.
When I am figuring out my lands, I always refer to Frank Karsten’s guide to building manabases. In this deck, I reliably want access to both Red and Blue mana on turn two to cast Lizard Blades and Ensoul Artifact, which he recommends thirteen sources for. I decided to play an additional dual-land in the form of Riverglide Pathway, as I also wanted to be able to cast and activate The Blackstaff of Waterdeep on turn three, and cast The Royal Scions promptly in post-board games.
I made some changes to the sideboard from what I used to play. Wild Slash was replaced by Voltage Surge as it’s almost strictly better against creature decks since you don’t plan to target your opponent’s face and having the option to deal four is great. I also cut the Annuls, as they were primarily for the Mono White Devotion matchup but Walking Ballista has now been banned, and the Lava Coils, as Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet isn’t as popular as it used to be and there are more efficient removal options you can play. In their place, I’ve opted to play a split of Redcap Melee, Rending Volley and Burning Hands – each of them being an efficient piece of removal against specific creature decks. I prefer this to playing more generic removal spells, as this deck wants to be as mana efficient as possible.
Hands to Keep
Although this deck plays out quite differently to Dredge, the reason I took to this deck so quickly was that the process for keeping hands is similar to Dredge. The way to make mulligan decisions with this deck is to treat it as a combo deck without card manipulation. This means that you need to put together all the specific parts to “combo off”, but the lack of card manipulation means you need them present in your opening hand, as you can’t rely on finding them later.
This deck mulligans well as it can win with just a few cards. A turn two attacking Ensoul Artifact can often win games on its own, and if you can play two of your pay-off cards in the first three turns of the game, you are most likely winning.
On the other hand, if you don’t have the payoffs and/or aren’t attacking with five-power creatures, you are most likely going to lose as many cards in your deck are barely draft playable on their own. So you must be very disciplined with your mulligan decisions.
The general rule of thumb with seven or six card hands is to keep a hand with two or more enablers (Ensoul Artifact, Ghostfire Blade, The Blackstaff of Waterdeep, Shrapnel Blast and Skilled Animator), and ways to utilise them. This means do not keep a hand with two Ensoul Artifact, two Shrapnel Blast and three lands. Of the two or more enablers, you almost always want one to be an Ensoul Artifact or Ghostfire Blade, as that allows you to attack on turn two with a buffed creature (an alternative is a hand with Ornithopter and The Blackstaff of Waterdeep). A hand with double Skilled Animator is likely too slow as you won’t be attacking for five until turn three, while a hand with double Sharpnel Blast is unlikely to be good enough as your 1/1 creatures won’t be enough to deal the first ten damage you need to finish the game off with the burn spells.
You also want every seven or six card hand to have a one-drop creature. Although casting Stonecoil Serpent for one is not ideal, you need to start with a one drop-unless you have an Ornithopter or Ghostfire Blade you can Ensoul instead. The whole point of the deck is to m
ake 5/5s (or 6/6s on a Stonecoil Serpent) ASAP, so anything will do.
I would aggressively mulligan any seven or six card hand that does not meet the above criteria. Once we reach the five card territory, I basically keep any hand, as four cards is simply too low. It may feel bad to mulligan so much, especially when you are forced to keep a bad five card hand but trust me, this deck is all about exploiting explosive draws. Your medium six card hand wouldn’t have won the game anyway, and the goal is to maximise your chanc of winning. It doesn’t matter how one sided your losses are as long as you’re increasing your odds of winning games.
Additional tips when playing the deck
Generally, casting Ensoul Artifact on an attacking creature on turn two is the best play you can make. However, against decks with a lot of removal like Blue-White Control, I will often opt for Ghostfire Blade instead – unless I have a hand that can already do four increments of five damage (like two Ensoul Artifact and two Shrapnel Blast in hand).
Even against decks with many removal spells, if you have a chance to successfully land five damage with Ensoul Artifact/Skilled Animator, and have other ways to repeat that, I usually go for it. This deck does work in increments of five, and you usually only need to land about three hits in (you can chip away for the last few points of damage). It also forces your opponent to react to it as there’s now a threat that must be dealt with in play, and that can present another window to get in for five.
Against decks with Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, such as Black-Red Midrange and Mono Black Aggro, you want to set up Darksteel Citadel plus Ensoul Artifact as quickly as you can as they generally have no way to deal with it in pre-board games. Against Thoughtseize decks, on turn two if I have a Citadel I can enchant, I will always tap out to enchant my land in case they topdeck the discard spell.
Figuring out which artifact to enchant with Ensoul Artifact can be difficult. Against Black decks, as mentioned above, Darksteel Citadel is a good target. Against 5c Niv-Mizzet, Stonecoil Serpent is your best bet. Against ground-based decks, an evasive threat like Ornithopter or Gingerbrute is the way to go.
Remember that Stonecoil Serpent has reach. This matters as the Spirits matchup often comes down to a race, and chump-blocking with it can be crucial. People also often forget it has reach, and you might randomly ambush a Spell Queller with it.
Against decks with a lot of removal, you often attack with your creatures first, then cast Ensoul Artifact/Skilled Animator post-combat. This is to play around their removal spells – they may use it in combat, and even if they don’t, at least you got to get in for damage first.
Gingerbrute can chump block, and sacrifice itself to gain three life. Although this may seem like a minor detail, this comes up often in aggro mirrors where you’re both racing, and your opponent will often miss it.
Mutavault is colorless, so you can equip Ghostfire Blade to it for one mana.
I hope you enjoyed this article, as I explored Pioneer for the first time in two years! To be totally honest, I haven’t enjoyed the gameplay of the format so far, as I feel that most decks are focused on executing their gameplan and often the games come down to who was on the play and the gameplay can feel like two ships passing in the night. It reminds me a lot of Modern in the early days of the format, where everyone was playing degenerate decks and trying to goldfish each other – only Pioneer is about two turns slower than that Modern format.
Regardless though, it is the format we will have to focus on over the next few months, and unless we see some major shakeups, we will need to get used to this kind of gameplay. I do appreciate that many of the decks are built upon Standard decks from days past, and so I am excited to revisit some of those archetypes again as I continue to delve into the format!
Till next time!
@mtgzen on Twitter