Ultimate Guide to MTG's Pioneer Format

Updated: Apr 15

Rules, decklists, and metagame insight to get you into Magic's newest format

Card: Mystical Dispute | Art: Ekaterina Burmak

In 2019, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, WotC announced a new format aimed at players who were fans of the unofficial Frontier format.


Thus, Pioneer was born.


Designed to be a non-rotating format that's something of a cross between Standard and Modern, it once appeared that Pioneer would be the hottest way to play Magic. Then the pandemic hit. With paper play all but non-existent and Pioneer not supported on Magic Arena, players were left without a way to experience it.


With the recent announcement that Wizards is bringing back the Pro Tour, with the first Regional Championships being played in Pioneer, players are once again excited about the format.


Although Pioneer isn't as expansive as Modern there is still a lot to know---especially if you've only played Standard. That said, it's a great format for newer players and vets alike.


This article will cover the basics of the format, including what sets are legal, what decks you should play, and some of the staples you might want to add to your collection.


Without further ado, let's dive in!


What Sets are Legal in MTG Pioneer?

Pioneer stretches all the way back to September 2013 and Return to Ravnica. That said, every Standard-legal set since is legal in the format.


As of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, this includes:

  • Return to Ravnica

  • Gatecrash

  • Dragon's Maze

  • Magic 2014

  • Theros

  • Born of the Gods

  • Magic 2015

  • Journey into Nix

  • Khans of Tarkir

  • Fate Reforged

  • Dragons of Tarkir

  • Battle for Zendikar

  • Oath of the Gatewatch

  • Shadows Over Innistrad

  • Eldritch Moon

  • Kaladesh

  • Aether Revolt

  • Amonkhet

  • Hour of Devastation

  • Ixalan

  • Rivals of Ixalan

  • Dominaria

  • Core Set 2019

  • Guilds of Ravnica

  • Ravnica Allegiance

  • War of the Spark

  • Core Set 2020

  • Throne of Eldraine

  • Theros Beyond Death

  • Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths

  • Core Set 2021

  • Zendikar Rising

  • Kaldheim

  • Strixhaven: School of Mages

  • Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms

  • Innistrad: Midnight Hunt

  • Innistrad: Crimson Vow

  • Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty

Phew! That's quite the list. With 33 sets and counting legal in Pioneer, there's no shortage of cards to choose from.


That being said, there is a list of banned cards as well. Just like other Magic formats, this list is updated as broken combos and decks show up that decrease the fun and competitiveness of the format.


Currently, the banlist includes:

  • Balustrade Spy

  • Felidar Guardian

  • Field of the Dead

  • Inverter of Truth

  • Kethis, the Hidden Hand

  • Leyline of Abundance

  • Lurrus of the Dream Den

  • Nexus of Fate

  • Oko, Thief of Crowns

  • Once Upon a Time

  • Smuggler's Copter

  • Teferi, Time Raveler

  • Undercity Informer

  • Underworld Breach

  • Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

  • Veil of Summer

  • Walking Ballista

  • Wilderness Reclamation


On top of these individual cards, fetch lands are also banned in Pioneer. That means you won't find Misty Rainforest, Scalding Tarn, Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, Verdant Catacombs, Flooded Strand, Bloodstained Mire, Polluted Delta, Windswept Heath, or Wooded Foothills in the format.


Not having fetches in the format helps incentivize building a clean manabase. It also decreases the price of most Pioneer decks compared to formats with them.


Is Pioneer a Rotating Format?

The short answer? Nope! Unlike Standard, which rotates every year, Pioneer is a non-rotating format. This means the cards in your collection can still be played once they rotate out of Standard.


In fact, that is one of the many reasons why Pioneer was created as a new format.


It aims to make Magic more accessible and give players something to do with their cards if they aren't ready to dive into Modern. Given that most top tier Modern decks cost upwards of $1,000, Pioneer is certainly a cheaper eternal format.


Pioneer and the Pro Tour

Sadly, Pioneer has never had a chance to show its potential due to the pandemic and its restrictions on paper play. That's bound to change in the coming years. Wizards is not giving up on the format and instead is devoting more attention to it.


As part of WotC's huge Pro Tour announcement, it revealed that the first round of Regional Championships will be played in Pioneer.


That's great news for the format as a whole since it means WotC will be paying more attention to it. Of course, players will also be paying more attention.


This means we'll likely see the meta shift as Pioneer gains more attention and more people start playing competitively. As more minds start working on the format, new decks and archetypes are sure to emerge.


What Cards are Pioneer Staples?

Just like every format, Pioneer has a list of staples that see play across archetypes or are simply some of the strongest effects of their type. Although the list of staples can change as new sets enter the format, some have remained popular since the format's inception.


Shock Lands

Some of the most important lands in the format are the so-called shock lands. These dual lands come in untapped if you pay two life but can also enter tapped if you need to preserve your life total.


Their flexibility makes them ideal for multi-color decks and they appear in practically every tier one list. If you're going to get into Pioneer, you should definitely invest in a set of shocks.



Best Pioneer Lands

Outside of shocks, there are several other lands that are played widely in Pioneer. The dual-sided pathway lands from Zendikar Rising and Kaldheim are some of the most popular. They are also a good investment for Pioneer players as they won't stop seeing play anytime soon.


In terms of lands that offer something else for the game besides mana, the "Castle" cycle from Throne of Eldraine fits the bill. They enter untapped if you control a land of their type (hint, shock lands have basic land types as well). Then, as the game goes on, you can use your unspent mana to do things like scry, draw extra cards, and make tokens.


The triomes from Ikoria (and soon to be from The Streets of New Capenna) are perfect for three-color builds. Although they enter tapped, they give you instant access to three colors of mana and also have basic land types. Plus, if you find yourself flooding out, you can cycle them away for a new card.


Finally, the creature lands from Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms see a good amount of play. They enter untapped if you control two or less lands. From there, they can be activated into efficient creatures with considerable upside. They are essentially a free inclusion for aggro decks and can be a game finisher for control lists.


Mana Dorks

One of the hallmarks of Pioneer is how quickly you can play out your deck. That's thanks to a variety of powerful "mana dorks," aka, creatures that let you produce extra mana than your lands can.


Green is loaded with these creatures, making it one of the more popular picks for Pioneer decks. Expect to see Llanowar Elves, a staple of Magic since its earliest days. Elvish Mystic is some of the fastest ramp in the game. Gilded Goose gives you extra items on the board while also serving as a temporary ramp source. Prosperous Innkeeper does the same, granting a treasure token alongside a life boost as additional creatures hit the board.


Counterspells

The more cards you add to a format, the better counterspells you gain access to. For Pioneer, there is no shortage of efficient spell denial. Although you don't have the power of UU Counterspell from Modern, there are lots of options.


Dovin's Veto is one of the best. If you're running blue and white, it lets you deny a non-creature spell without risk of getting into a counter battle.


Mystical Dispute is another great choice---especially against blue-based decks. You can counter any blue spell for just one mana and hit non-blue spells for 2(U). Meanwhile, Aether Gust sees plenty of play simply due to its efficiency.



Thoughtseize

There isn't much to say about Thoughtseize that hasn't already been said. It is premium hand disruption and gives you early information about your opponent's hand. That information is often just as valuable as making them discard their best card. Expect to find Thoughtseize in the majority of black-based Pioneer decks.


Rest in Peace

Much like Thoughtseize, Rest in Peace is found in just about every deck that can play it. However, it most commonly lives in the sideboard until it's time to wreak havoc in games two and three against decks like Izzet Phoenix and Rakdos Cat Anvil.


Eldraine Adventure Creatures

During their time in Standard, Bonecrusher Giant, Brazen Borrower, Lovestruck Beast, and friends caused nightmares for opposing players. The value offered by these powerful two-for-one creatures cannot be understated. Fortunately for Pioneer fans, their rotation from Standadr doesn't mean the end of their usefulness. You'll find them in a wide variety of archetypes in the format.


Best Pioneer Removal

There are plenty of removal options in a format as big as Pioneer. While some decks favor certain pieces over others, there are some staples to be found. Fatal Push is one of the most efficient removal spells in the format. Meanwhile, the new March of Otherworldly Light can deal with almost any threat at instant speed, including creature lands, enchantments, and artifacts. Anger of the Gods is a powerful board wipe for red decks that happens to exile problematic creatures. Supreme Verdict offers an uncounterable wipe effect for classic control decks.



Planeswalkers of Pioneer

There are tons of planeswalkers legal in Pioneer. However, very few make the cut for being playable. One of the most common is Narset, Parter of Veils. Her card draw denial is huge against a variety of decks in the format.


Meanwhile, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria defines an entire archetype. Azorius control wouldn't be the same without Teferi to lock things down and take over in the late game.


For aggressive lists, Chandra, Torch of Defiance is hard to beat. With her four abilities, you can get extra mana, card advantage, clear the board, or burn your opponent out. Of course, her ultimate is almost always a game-ender.


Miscellaneous Pioneer Staples

There are a few more cards worth noting that don't fit into a single category. One is Shark Typhoon. One of the most iconic cards from Ikoria (and a play on Sharknado), its cycling ability serves as both an instant-speed blocker and a finisher for control decks. You'll find it in almost every blue-based control deck in Pioneer.


Likewise, Kohlagan's Command can be found in the majority of RBx lists in the format. Its various modes are extremely flexible and are applicable in almost every matchup.


Finally, Expressive Iteration has become a multi-format staple for good reason. It is typically a draw two for two mana that also lets you look at the top three cards of your library. That is extremely efficient in the early game and back-breaking card advantage in the late game. Any deck that can run Izzet colors should seriously consider it.


Popular Decks in Pioneer (Updated April 2022)

When diving into a new format, it's often difficult to decide which deck you want to play. If that sounds familiar, we've got you covered. Below is a brief introduction to some of the most popular decks in Pioneer. These are lists that both perform well in the meta and see a lot of play in the format.


If you want to learn more about these decks, check out our new Pioneer section here at Bolt the Bird!


Keep in mind that this is not an all-inclusive list. Pioneer's meta game changes with each new set release and some decks might not be highlighted here that see play in the format. Use this as a basic overview that gives you an idea of Pioneer's diversity.


Azorius Control

A staple of any format, Azorious Control is no different in Pioneer. It utilizes some of the format's best planeswalkers and removal spells to keep the board clean until it can lock up the late game. Many lists opt to use Yorion, the Sky Noodle as an extra piece of card advantage and for its blink ability to draw cards later in the game. However, some lists have moved away from it in favor of a more consistent 60-card build.


Who it's for: If you enjoy grindy, long games where you're in the driver's seat, Pioneer Azorious Control might be right for you.


Naya Winota

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Naya Winota offers explosive starts and quick wins. It relies on non-human mana dorks to ramp out an early Winota. From there, you turn your creatures sideways and hope to overwhelm your opponent with hits off Winota like Blade Historian, Tovolar's Huntmaster, and Kenrith.


Who it's for: Those who like aggressive decks with a bit of a combo element and love swinging out.


Izzet Phoenix

One of the most popular and iconic decks in Pioneer, Izzet Phoenix has dominated since the format was created. It harnesses the value and power of Pioneer's best red and blue spells to create extremely consistent games. This deck can see a huge percentage of its cards in any given game. That means you'll be bringing Arclight Phoenix back from the graveyard with shocking ease. Access to tons of removal, card draw, and counters doesn't hurt either (especially when you can flip a Thing in the Ice). Though it's diffcult to pilot, Izzet Phoenix has certainly earned its place at the top of the meta.


Who it's for: Izzet afficionados that like a deck with countless decisions that impact the game during every stage.


Rakdos / Jund Cat Anvil

A deck that looks to win on a unique axis, Rakdos (or sometimes Jund) Cat Anvil is extremely fun to pilot. It relies on sacrificing creatures that drain your opponent. Meanwhile, artifacts like Oni-Cult Anvil and Witch's Oven provide tons of value for saccing creatures you already want to. This deck can be super grindy and difficult to pilot, but its strength can't be denied.


Who it's for: Players that like attacking on a different axis and draining their opponent using difficult to interact with board-based combo pieces.


Lotus Field Combo

One of the most difficult Pioneer decks to pilot, Lotus Field Combo is extremely powerful. It almost always wins if left unchecked after turn five. Thanks to the insane mana generation of Lotus Field, this deck can do degenerate things like hard-casting Omniscience. Of course, it can also combo off to win the game with pieces like Emergent Ultimatum finding Peer Into the Abyss, Approach of the Second Sun, or Ugin the Spirit Dragon.


Who it's for: Combo purists that don't mind putting in the hours to learn a deck with hundreds of playlines and outs.


Rakdos Midrange

Rakos Midrange remains a key player in the meta on the back of its powerhouse cards. The likes of Bonecrusher Giant, Thoughtseize, and Kroxa help it tear apart your opponent's hand and board. Meanwhile, the new inclusion of Fable of the Mirror Breaker makes it even more grindy and resilient.


Who it's for: Those who like a midrange build that can win from multiple angles and has few bad matchups.


Niv to Light

Though it has fallen out of favor in recent months, Niv to Light is still an iconic Pioneer deck. It utilizes Bring to Light as extra copies of silver bullet answers that are otherwise one-ofs in the deck. Meanwhile, Niv-Mizzet Reborn is a potent finisher that can also be chained together into another Niv once the first resolves as you can find another Bring to Light. This deck offers answers to just about every player in the format, but can struggle against other top meta lists. Niv to Light has a hard time with Izzet Phoenix, Lotus Field, and aggressive black-based decks with hand interaction. That's an issue in this meta. Yet, this deck can always adapt as time goes on.


Who it's for: Players looking for a consistent midrange build that can answer many decks in the format while being difficult to answer itself after sticking a big threat.


Mono-Red Aggro / Burn

Another deck found in just about every format, mono-red aggro is a strong player in Pioneer. It's backed up with plenty of burn spells to finish your opponent off. Combined with hasty, hard-hitting creatures, this deck ends games quickly. It does struggle against combo decks without a fast start, but can steal wins against most lists.


Who it's for: Players that want to win the game by turn four and burn their opponent's face.


Where to Play Pioneer Online

Right now, the only official place to play Pioneer online is on Magic Online (MTGO). This is a bummer given the client's outdated interface. However, it's still good for getting reps in with your deck before a paper tournament.


For now, though, Pioneer is still mainly a paper format. With upcoming Pro Tour support, expect more LGSs to start hosting events in Pioneer.


Will Pioneer Come to MTG Arena?

Although nothing has been confirmed, rumors are swirling that Wizards is working on adding Pioneer to Arena. Despite Arena's flaws, many players would welcome this addition.


It would make the format much more accessible and likely increase its popularity as well.


Meanwhile, it would give players a true-to-paper eternal format on the client now that Historic has been overtaken by Alchemy cards.


It will be interesting to see if WotC makes any announcement regarding Pioneer on Arena and what a timetable for the format would look like.


 

Are you ready to dive into Pioneer? What list sounds the most enticing to you? Let us know what you'd like to hear more about in the comments below and on social media!



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