The first major Pioneer event took place on Friday on Magic Online, a PTQ where busted strategies took off. Then Wizards of the Coast decided to run out a Week 1 ban of three separate powerful cards.
There was a Simic Nexus deck that defeated our own Todd Anderson on Mono-Green Devotion (now hit hard by bans!) in the finals, a number of Treasure Cruise-fueled Izzet Phoenix decks, a Kethis/Emry deck similar to the one seen in last week's article, and of course, tons of (now banned) Four-Color Copy Cat decks built around the unholy trio of busted three-mana planeswalkers.
Now, we all know that Saheeli Rai isn't particularly unfair on her own, but rather gets her power from the threat of combining with Felidar Guardian for a swift death by a thousand Cats. Gerry Thompson went into incredible detail on the way that this threat wins the game via the concept of "False Tempo" or causing an opponent to leave up mana and play cautiously turn after turn.
Despite the fact that Felidar Guardian got hit by the banhammer on Monday in a surprise move by WotC, the lesson is instructive for future reference, as false tempo is the best kind of tempo in my book (and it's a clear sign of a very, very strong deck).
You see, when your opponent fails to maximize their mana because they feel compelled to leave lands untapped to protect themselves against a combo, you get a large virtual mana advantage. It's this, rather than the actual combo itself, that is so damaging.
Then, of course, Teferi did act as a potent lead-in to a Felidar Guardian, as we've seen that play pattern work in Modern. Obviously now Teferi will remain a player in Pioneer, but at a lower clip when he's not protecting a busted combo.
And finally, the (still somehow legal) Oko, Thief of Crowns. This planeswalker just feels like WotC accidentally put a plus sign instead of a minus sign on that second ability. It feels like a legitimate misprint.
After all, no one would slap Beast Within as a loyalty-generating ability on a planeswalker that costs the same amount of mana as the spell itself, right? Sure, sure, instant speed and the ability to target all permanent types, I know. But this is damn close to a Beast Within that leaves behind a high-loyalty planeswalker that can then continue to Beast Within other things or generate Food tokens for more fodder for future Beast Withins.
So on the one hand we have these broken cards that are getting banned left and right. We still have busted delve spells like Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time making blue decks go supernova. It seems like the format is getting broken every which way by powerful cards.
On the other hand, we have one smuggly boi.
Who would win?
- 4 Phyrexian Revoker
- 1 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Bloodsoaked Champion
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 4 Murderous Rider
- 4 Night Market Lookout
- 3 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Rampaging Ferocidon
- 2 Hazoret the Fervent
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
- 1 Hazoret the Fervent
You love to see it!
Three basic Smuggler's Copter aggro decks just playing fair beatdown in a world dominated by unfair decks. And all of them found success! They missed Top 8 on tiebreakers, going 8-2, and they represent the other half of the Pioneer metagame. And none of them, not one, has any pieces banned now. They are still kicking and ready to make some noise!
How did that happen?
Smuggler's Copter is one heck of a Magic card, in case it wasn't obvious. A quick history lesson: Copter was banned about three years ago in Standard alongside Reflector Mage because of how powerful these cards were in the Azorius Flash deck. Oh, and Emrakul, the Promised End went along with them. It was a dark time for Standard, to be sure.
Why is Smuggler's Copter so good?
Well, a 3/3 flying creature for two mana is certainly above the curve. If there were no ability on Smuggler's Copter, it would probably have been a low-end playable, but not particularly impressive part of Standard. A Sky Skiff with +1/+0? Meh.
Looting every turn in an aggro deck, though? That's incredible. Looting while attacking is just what it takes to keep consistency high and find the right cards to shut the door on the opponent. Imagine a Looter il-Kor, but a 3/3 instead of a 1/1. That's Smuggler's Copter.
Against control decks, it keeps the gas flowing by ditching unusable removal or excess lands. Against aggro decks, it finds removal spells and tosses away stuff like Scrapheap Scrounger. Oh, and it loots upon blocking against aggro, so it doesn't even require you to race in order to get the benefit of card selection.
And one secret benefit of the powerful Vehicle? If the opponent does turn it into an Elk (as people tend to do nowadays), then it frees up whichever creature was crewing it to get back into the fray. So Elk'ing the Copter is not a particularly strong play, though it may be a necessary one at times. Smuggler's Copter is one of the best threats in the face of the absurd planeswalker, which makes it a stronger card contextually, it seems.
Then, of course, there are synergies to examine. These decks, for the most part, ignore any deliberate synergies with Copter's looting effect, preferring light touches of recursion like Scrapheap Scrounger and Bloodsoaked Champion. One could go further down the route of recursive threats with things like Dread Wanderer, or benefit from discard with something like Fiery Temper or even Abolisher of Bloodlines (!).
But it seems as though currently players aren't looking to play any slightly weaker cards in an attempt to leverage Smuggler's Copter for more gain, which speaks to the power level of the card on its own.
Additionally, one of the things to keep in mind while examining these decks is the presence of valuable lands in the manabase. The Mono-Black deck uses Castle Locthwain to draw extra cards and Mutavault to keep the beats coming. Now that is a manabase I can get behind!
Night Market Lookout has a small amount of synergy with the Copter, slipping through for a point when it hops on board. And yes, Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are some of the highest-power cards in Pioneer, but tend to skew great or horrible depending on the matchup or the phase of the game. One of the nice things about Smuggler's Copter is that it dumps dead Thoughtseizes on Turn 7, or dead Fatal Pushes against a deck like Scapeshift or Esper Control. One thing to note is that it might be worth it to go more Zombie-oriented, like the powerful Mono-Black Zombies of Pro Tour Amonkhet era. It seems in a format as powerful as no-ban Pioneer, it's better to be aggressive a la Zombies than midrangey a la Mono-Black Devotion.
As for the red decks, there is a whole range of options, from midrangey builds with Chandra, Fire Artisan; Goblin Chainwhirler; and Heart of Kiran down to all-out aggro with Bomat Courier, Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage, and Ghitu Lavarunner.
You know the deal here, folks. If you're going to play red aggro, it's best to start out low to the ground and midrange it up in the sideboard games, if possible. Only Smuggler's Copter can take us from a sixteen-one-drop aggro pile to a Glorybringer midrange deck and keep the whole thing in line. I expect the twisting and turning angles of attack from red beatdown to be a major part of this format going forward.
Now, even more than straight-up aggro decks, Smuggler's Copter is an incredible tool for tempo decks, aggro-control decks that play mostly at instant speed. Small creatures with flash can get into the Copter and start sculpting hands while slugging the opponent. Merfolk in Modern is one (admittedly underpowered) example of the phenomenon, though perhaps an old favorite can return to Standard leveraging the power of the Copter…
- 2 Brazen Borrower
- 4 Harbinger of the Tides
- 4 Master of Waves
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Merfolk Trickster
- 4 Siren Stormtamer
- 4 Tempest Djinn
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
Andrew Jessup has combined the best cards in old Mono-Blue Devotion from 2013 with Mono-Blue Tempo from 2019, added some Smuggler's Copters to hold it together with improved consistency, and let this beast out to mess people up. Here, Smuggler's Copter loots away excess lands (with help from Thassa, God of the Sea and her upkeep scry trigger) and pitches unnecessary countermagic or excess weak bodies for more hefty threats like Master of Waves or Thassa.
The fact that many of the creatures in this deck (Mutavault, Copter, and sometimes Thassa) are not even creatures on the opponent's turn means that opponents will get put into tricky spots with their removal. For example, if a Smuggler's Copter and a Mutavault are on the battlefield, an opponent with a Fatal Push won't have the opportunity to use it until the Mono-Blue player decides that it's time to send in some damage. Compounding this is the density of instant-speed threats like Merfolk Trickster and Brazen Borrower. Mono-Blue makes the best use of timing tricks to squeeze opponents on mana or interaction, depending on the turn.
I'd be interested in seeing what the next steps are for fighting the various key menaces in Pioneer, but the omnipresence of the banhammer looming overhead makes it hard to predict what the format will look like in six months' time.
Pioneer is a format with decidedly weak removal relative to the strength of its threats. Fatal Push is the best we've got, but little better than Wild Slash or Pillar of Flame in red, and no Condemn, Oust, or Path to Exile to help out white. This is one of the keys to the success of Mono-Green Devotion in the first week of the format, but it also means that Smuggler's Copter isn't quite the liability it would be in a Lightning Bolt format.
If we do see a few more key bannings in the coming months (things like Treasure Cruise; Dig Through Time; Oko, Thief of Crowns; Emry, Lurker of the Loch; Jeskai Ascendancy; or Teferi, Time Raveler), it stands to reason that Smuggler's Copter will quickly shift to being a solid player in the format. We've yet to encounter a Constructed metagame where both the Copter and Heart of Kiran are major players, and it will be interesting to see the tension inherent between those similarly powerful Vehicles. Mardu Vehicles with four Copter and three Heart of Kiran sounds pretty interesting, no?
As for the health of the format in general, if WotC could see their way into printing a sorcery-speed Lightning Bolt, or one that only hit creatures and planeswalkers, that would be something. Perhaps a Journey to Nowhere that hits planeswalkers too? Or give Oust back to the people; that card isn't too strong but would do a lot to balance the colors. Heck, an Oust for nonwhite creatures and planeswalkers might be an interesting sideboard card as well!
For now, Pioneer is shaping up to be an extremely dynamic format, destined to keep deck designers on their toes for years to come as we plumb the depths of the card pool, finding the perfect card from five years ago to answer multiple problems simultaneously. Formerly banned Standard superstars are all jostling for superiority, and each one will have their day in the sun. Though, to be frank, a lot of them will be short-lived as the Banned List of Frontier grows with each passing week. Smuggler's Copter is quietly putting itself up there at the top of the format with the biggest flagship planeswalkers and busted draw engines, and for good reason.