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Metagame Mentor: The Pioneer Decks to Defeat at April 2024 RCQs

April 04, 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. On April 20, the next cycle of Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs) will start, featuring Pioneer as the Constructed format for in-store events. If you aspire to make it to a Regional Championship or Pro Tour, you should know the ins and outs of Pioneer.

To get you up to speed, today's article provides an overview of the format with a metagame snapshot and a walkthrough of the top 10 Pioneer archetypes as of now. Along the way, I'll add my first thoughts on promising new cards from Outlaws of Thunder Junction. Afterwards, I'll go back in time to highlight a great deck from the 1996 Magic World Championship, providing a historical perspective on the metagame at the time.

The Pioneer Metagame in March 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 2,400 available decklists from all Pioneer and Explorer events held on Magic Online and Melee from March 8 through March 31. For each deck, I awarded points 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 then be interpreted as its share of the winner's metagame.

Archetype Winner's Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Vampires 21.5% ↑↑
2. Izzet Phoenix 14.2%
3. Amalia Combo 13.4% ↑↑
4. Waste Not 5.7% ↑↑
5. Niv to Light 5.3%
6. Azorius Control 4.5% ↓↓
7. Lotus Field Combo 3.6% ↓↓
8. Izzet Ensoul 2.8%
9. Boros Heroic 2.5%
10. Azorius Spirits 2.1%
11. Rakdos Midrange 2.0% ↓↓
12. Rakdos Transmogrify 1.9%
13. Mono-Green Devotion 1.8%
14. Mardu Heroic 1.8%
15. Izzet Creativity 1.7%
16. Mono-Blue Spirits 1.2%
17. Mono-Black Midrange 1.1%
18. Rakdos Sacrifice 1.0%
19. Boros Convoke 0.9% ↓↓
20. Quintorius Combo 0.9%
21. Dimir Control 0.9%
22. Other 9.4%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing, representative decklist. The "Other" category included Mono-Red Aggro, Izzet Transmogrify, Gruul Vehicles, Selesnya Auras, Jeskai Creativity, Jund Transmogrify, Enigmatic Fires, Grixis Phoenix, Selesnya Angels, Enigmatic Incarnation, Abzan Greasefang, Azorius Ensoul, Azorius Lotus Field, Goblins, Azorius Auras, Selesnya Company, Izzet Control, Dimir Rogues, Boros Burn, Mono-White Humans, and more.

As indicated by the arrows in the table, the metagame has changed after Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor. Following Seth Manfield's victory, Rakdos Vampires has cemented itself as the premier deck to defeat, supplanting Rakdos Midrange. Decks with poor matchups against Rakdos Vampires, such as Azorius Control, Lotus Field Combo, and Boros Heroic, have dropped in popularity. Meanwhile, sideboard answers to Vein Ripper, such as Blot Out, Pick Your Poison, and Tears of Valakut, have become more prominent.

Last weekend's Arena Championship 5, held in the Explorer format, cemented the notion that Rakdos Vampires, Amalia Combo, and Izzet Phoenix are the three main decks to defeat in Pioneer right now. In a Top 8 with five Rakdos Vampires players, Toni Ramis Pascual emerged victorious, playing Izzet Phoenix. In the finals, he defeated Ryan Condon, who was one of the three players on a Quintorius Combo deck with Gyruda, Doom of Depths. This breakout build went 8-6 in matches against Rakdos Vampires, showing its promise in the current metagame.

Since Pioneer rewards in-depth knowledge of your deck's interactions, matchups, and strategies, 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 10 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.

1. Rakdos Vampires

At its core, Rakdos Vampires is pretty similar to Rakdos Midrange, featuring familiar format staples like Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. However, the real power is the Vampire theme. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is arguably the best three-mana planeswalker in Pioneer, and it has the tremendous upside of slamming Vein Ripper onto the battlefield as early as turn three. Vein Ripper is difficult to remove, provides a fast clock, and wins damage races.

After Rakdos Vampire broke out at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, the deck has evolved further. Most importantly, Smuggler's Copter has made way for Archfiend of the Dross, which dominates the air and survives Lightning Axe. This shores up previous weaknesses against Izzet Phoenix—but watch out for an opposing Heartless Act removing the oil counters!

2. Izzet Phoenix

Izzet Phoenix aims to recur Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard by chaining together three cheap spells in a single turn. Treasure Cruise is amazing in this deck, and Ashiok, Dream Render has become a typical inclusion to fill your own graveyard, exile your opponent's, and prevent search effects like Archdruid's Charm or Chord of Calling. At Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, Izzet Phoenix won an impressive 57.5% of its Pioneer matches, but the recent emergence of Archfiend of the Dross and Waste Not are making the metagame less hospitable.

From Outlaws of Thunder Junction, Slick Sequence might be an interesting option for a flex slot or two. In Izzet Phoenix, Slick Sequence is like a Bonecrusher Giant that draws a powerful card instead of a mediocre 4/3. It's also reminiscent of Electrolyze, but for only two mana. I don't know if that's enough to deserve a spot in the 75, but more options are never bad.

3. Amalia Combo

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 March have been emphasizing additional Collected Company and Voice of Resurgence, improving the grinding potential against Rakdos Vampires.

From Outlaws of Thunder Junction, Lively Dirge could further increase the deck's consistency and resiliency. If either Wildgrowth Walker or Amalia has been destroyed or discarded earlier, then a five-mana Lively Dirge for both modes allows you to put the other combo piece into your graveyard, then return both creatures to the battlefield. It competes for slots with Collected Company and Return to the Ranks, but it has a unique effect that could be worthwhile.

4. Waste Not

This strategy, which has climbed to 6.0% 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.

Although the deck was only a small portion of the metagame at the Pro Tour, it has become more and more popular in recent weeks to prey on Izzet Phoenix decks. With main deck Go Blank to exile their graveyard, as well as Waste Not to punish them for discarding to Ledger Shredder or Lightning Axe, the cards line up well. The matchup against Rakdos Vampires is more difficult, but Liliana of the Veil and Sheoldred's Edict are suitable answers to Vein Ripper.

5. Niv to Light

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 and Niv-Mizzet Surpreme. 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, but after Murders at Karlov Manor introduced Lightning Helix, Niv to Light made a triumphant return.

Thanks to Bring to Light and Analyze the Pollen, the deck makes good use of silver bullets. A notable one is Quakebringer, which shuts down Amalia Combo after sideboard. Quakebringer has a major benefit over Knight of Dusk's Shadow or Rampaging Ferocidon: Its mana value is five. This means that neither Fatal Push nor Skyclave Apparition can touch it, making it very difficult for Amalia Combo players to answer it. Many other red decks could benefit from using Quakebringer as well.

6. Azorius Control

With a solid suite of spot removal, countermagic, card draw, sweepers and planeswalkers, Azorius Control has remained the premier control deck in Pioneer. Based on the Pro Tour results, it preys on Amalia Combo but struggles against Izzet Phoenix and Rakdos Vampires. However, the deck is always capable of rebuilding its suite of answers for the ever-changing metagame. Versions with Yorion, Sky Nomad; Kaheera, the Orphanguard; or Zirda, the Dawkwaker exist as well, but the most prominent Azorius Control build currently uses no companion.

Murders at Karlov Manor recently upgraded Azorius Control with No More Lies, and Outlaws of Thunder Junction has a new piece of countermagic that might be a consideration as well: Three Steps Ahead. Arguably the best Cancel variant of all time, it provides a mouth-watering amount of versatility. It can turn into a card draw spell if you're digging for lands or sweepers, surprise an opponent by copying a Shark at instant speed, or turn into a supercharged Dismiss in the late game.

7. Heroic

Together, Boros Heroic and Mardu Heroic made up 4.3% of the winner's metagame in March, collectively making it the seventh-most Pioneer archetype. Both versions aim to target their own creatures with pump spells, earning Heroic triggers and prowess triggers along the way. The possible black splash, highlighted in the list above, is a novel development. Claim//Fame provides flexible counterplay against removal, while Sheoldred's Edict in the sideboard is excellent against Vein Ripper. However, the mana base is more painful, so it's not yet clear whether Mardu truly outclasses Boros.

From Outlaws of Thunder Junction, Slickshot Show-Off is a promising new option. Its power can quickly grow into the stratosphere, and the Plot ability allows you to deploy it with all mana available for protection and buffs. Those buffs will be particularly well-placed on Slickshot Show-Off because it has flying as built-in evasion. Based on my first impression, the card is worth testing in Heroic decks.

8. Lotus Field Combo

Lotus Field Combo is a combo deck that can generate a lot of mana in a single turn. The plan is to find Lotus Field, make another copy via Thespian's Stage, and untap those lands with Hidden Strings and Pore Over the Pages. Emergent Ultimatum provides access to Lier, Disciple of the Drowned and Omniscience, which will usually lead to victory. The most common win condition is Fae of Wishes, which grabs Approach of the Second Sun from the sideboard.

Murders at Karlov Manor revamped the deck with the introduction of Archdruid's Charm: the first-ever, unconditional, three-mana effect that can put Lotus Field or Thespian's Stage from your library directly onto the battlefield. Archdruid's Charm also fetches Lier, Disciple of the Drowned and answers Damping Sphere after sideboard. However, even though the added consistency was great, the deck's poor matchup against Rakdos Vampires and weakness to Ashiok, Dream Render has reduced its popularity after the Pro Tour.

9. Spirits

Together, Azorius Spirits and Mono-Blue Spirits made up 3.3% of the winner's metagame in March, collectively making it the eighth-most Pioneer archetype. Both versions are based around the synergistic creature base of Mausoleum Wanderer, Rattlechains, and Supreme Phantom, but there are also substantial differences. Mono-Blue tends to be more aggressive in nature, focusing on the game plan of suiting up a one-mana Spirit with Curious Obsession. These versions also use Geistlight Snare as protection and Shacklegeist to clear the way.

Although there are Azorius versions with similar game plans, most of them have shaved the Curious Obsession angle. Instead, they use Smuggler's Copter and Wedding Announcement as a midrange strategy. A standout card in the latest Azorius builds is Katilda, Dawnhart Martyr, which blocks Vein Ripper all day. From Outlaws of Thunder Junction, Dust Animus and Assimilation Aegis could give an additional incentive to splash white.

10. Izzet Ensoul

Izzet Ensoul, the tenth and final deck in this overview, is named after Ensoul Artifact, which can turn a token created by Spyglass Siren or Voldaren Epicure into a powerful 5/5 attacker. Three attacks and a Shrapnel Blast later, you will have taken your opponent down from 20 to 0 life. The deck is also the best home for Smuggler's Copter and Inti, Seneschal of the Sun, which have awesome synergy together.

At the Pro Tour, several players tried Gleaming Geardrake and/or Case of the Filched Falcon, but these versions flopped. More traditional lists that instead use Gleeful Demolition and Reckless Bushwhacker were more prominent in March. A new addition to successful lists is The Akroan War in the sideboard. Stealing Vein Ripper is a sweet way to turn the tables against Rakdos Vampires, and you can tap it via Smuggler's Copter in response to the third chapter.

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

While the upcoming Pioneer RCQs are a perfect first step in your competitive Magic journey, the World Championship has always been the crown jewel of organized play. Given Magic's long and rich history, the upcoming 30th edition will be one to celebrate. As we count down until World Championship 30, to be held at MagicCon: Las Vegas on October 25–27, 2024, we're taking a look at a great deck from a past Magic World Championship each week. After previously reviewing 1994 Worlds and 1995 Worlds, we're moving on to 1996!

According to the third issue of Sideboard magazine, the 1996 Magic World Championship was held in Renton, Washington on August 15–18, featuring 125 competitors from 28 countries. Many had earned their invite via a top finish at a Pro Tour earlier that year, as the prestigious international tournament series had also started in 1996. The World Championship featured several days of Swiss competition in formats we would now call Booster Draft, Standard, and Legacy, with Top 8 playoffs in Standard. And there was one dominant Standard deck.

2478 Drain Life 159266

The summer of 1996 was nicknamed "Black Summer," because after the restriction of Black Vise, Necropotence decks were everywhere. Although the card was underrated at the time of its release, its ability to draw more than one card per turn, keep your hand full, and overwhelm your opponent caused it to gained traction. One life for one card is a shocking level of efficiency, especially when you can continually bolster your life total with Drain Life, Ivory Tower, and/or Zuran Orb. Further fueled by Dark Ritual, Necropotence dominated Magic for years, cemented itself as one of the most broken cards of all time, and is currently banned in Legacy.

At the 1996 World Championship, 46 out of the 125 Standard decks were Necropotence decks, representing an enormous 37% share of the metagame; and most other players were running anti-Necro decks. In the end, three Necropotence players made the Top 8. Henry Stern (who would later go on to work in Magic R&D) made the Top 4 with the classic build shown above, featuring a spicy Yotian Soldier to help against Stasis and small creatures. With the power of hindsight, an extra Necropotence or Demonic Consultation might have served him better, but it was still a formidable deck.

Besides the incredible card draw engine, Stern's "Necrodeck" also featured a lot of disruption, allowing it to dictate the game with discard spells, land destruction, and sweepers. A key card was Nevinyrral's Disk. It not only swept the opponent's board but also cleared your own Necropotence, allowing you to regain your draw step after you had refilled your hand. The deck had all angles covered.

All in all, the 1996 World Championship demonstrated the power of Necropotence, but the card didn't actually end up winning the event. Tom Chanpheng emerged victorious with a "White Weenie" deck featuring 12 protection-from-black creatures—the perfect foil to the metagame. Read more about his victory in Corbin Hosler's "The Week That Was" tomorrow. For years, Magic World Championships have showcased powerful strategies and brilliant metagame calls, and I'm looking forward to the Magic World Championship 30 on October 25, 2024!

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