[Pioneer Building] Theros through Magic Origins

Hi everybody, and welcome back to Strictly Average. Pioneer is an exciting format that still hasn’t been figured out yet, and honestly that’s quite alright. The format is almost a month old, and it’s THE format everyone is talking about. From tournament organizers, stores, players, to the villains in MTG Finance, everyone is trying to figure it out. At first glance there seemed to be very few cards available, but as players explored new options revealing themselves. Even I surprise myself with some of the cards I realize are Pioneer legal, and the combinations that can be done with them.

Yesterday I explored the Standard era that is the foundation of this Pioneer format. Return to Ravnica to Magic 2015 had a lot of memorable decks, and allowed players to explore all of the archetypes available (including Combo). At this point in the history of Standard Return to Ravnica has left Standard, and Khans of Tarkir has taken its place.

It’s all Greek to me

In this era of Standard we have the following sets:


As much as Return to Ravnica was great (even if the last two expansions of that were individually not so great) Theros was…ok at best. Sure there were a lot of memorable cards from the expansions. Scry lands, the Gods, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Stormbreath Dragon, Thoughtseize, Manamorphose, and more. However out of all three expansions there were about ten non-land cards that were worth anything in the secondary market, and saw play beyond Standard. Even that play was very limited (outside of Thoughtseize), and for most of its time the packs just sat on the shelves. There were interesting mechanics in Heroic, and Constellation; however others did not see a lot of play. Devotion was far and away the best mechanic from these first few expansions that it dwarfed interest in any others, and some mechanics (such as Monstrous) only received support in one set.

However this did not stop many Magic: the Gathering players from exploring what the new cards had to offer, and there were a lot that they found fetching.


Released in the fall of 2014 Khans of Tarkir provided another multicolor set option for many Magic: the Gathering players, and with the lack of success that the previous expansions had these new sets become the foundation of Standard going forward. Usually the older set takes the forefront, but definitely not in this case. Many of the archetypes early on felt like Midrange decks where the only difference were the colors chosen to build with. Khans of Tarkir also provided us the names of the “wedge” colors (one central color flanked by it’s enemy colors). Abzan is the white, black, green color combination, while Mardu is the red, white, black color combination. This information had been missing since the Shards of Alara expansions gave us the three-ally-color combinations of Esper (white, blue, black), and Jund (black, red, green) for example.

Oh and we also received reprints of the Onslaught fetchlands.

Just to remind you, and I will do so tomorrow as well, these cards are banned in Pioneer:

However even though those cards are gone we can see the cards in this era have had a long lasting effect on the game, and could very well be the foundation of Pioneer. Let’s take a look at what there is to offer.


Esper Dragons

Creature (9)
Dragonlord Ojutai
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Dragonlord Silumgar

Instant (18)
Silumgar’s Scorn
Foul-Tongue Invocation
Hero’s Downfall
Bile Blight
Dig Through Time

Planeswalkers (1)
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Sorcery (6)
Crux of Fate

Land (26)
Dismal Backwater
Polluted Delta
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Enlightenment
Haven of the Spirit Dragon
Caves of Koilos
Flooded Strand
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sideboard (15)
Drown In Sorrow
Disdainful Stroke
Pharika’s Cure
Dragonlord’s Prerogative
Silumgar, the Drifting Death
Orbs of Warding
Virulent Plague
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Ultimate Price

I was wanting to hold on to this one until tomorrow, but I couldn’t. Dragonlord Ojutai is a great card, and for those of us wanting to play this archetype we were finally given something that wasn’t a Dimir-based Pearl Lake Ancient deck.

How the deck works

You want to keep your opponent off of their big plays through spot removal, and counterspells, until you can play your win condition in Dragonlord Ojutai. What was great about this deck is it felt like a tribal deck in a control package. Silumgar’s Scorn plays like actual Counterspell as long as you have a dragon in play, or in your hand. Although there appears to be few planeswalkers in the deck, keep in mind the low casting costs of your spells, and the abilities of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. That card is the best card in Magic Origins, and it’s not even close. If you didn’t play Standard when it was legal then over these next few days you’ll see how Jace was literally everywhere. From the sideboard not only were there more control elements, but we also had Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. With Hero’s Downfall being the only card that can destroy a planeswalker, this card started seeing a lot more play. Being able to attack the opponent’s library and play the opponent’s cards made this a powerful inclusion throughout its time in Standard.

Pioneer Impact

Obviously the first step is to update the mana. The dual lands are the best options for many decks in Pioneer, and this one is no different. I would only play a single copy of Godless Shrine as you are splashing white for Dragonlord Ojutai, and maybe a pair of Supreme Verdict.

Yes I know. You probably already know to add this to the deck. However this does a few things to protect your Dragonlord Ojutai. For starters it prevents your opponent from casting an instant after the Dragonlord has already attacked. You can also bounce the Dragonlord back to your hand (and draw a card), and then replay it. If you have more than five mana this is something to consider as you don’t have a way to untap your Dragonlord. …or do you?

Yes. This is a weird inclusion, however Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner can untap Dragonlord Ojutai seven times. Your opponent should be defeated by then. No, you won’t get a chance to use her static ability, you don’t need green to cast her, and it’s a better option than Thassa’s Ire or Vizier of Tumbling Sands. You do have other dragons you can play both in the main deck as well as the sideboard so her static ability is not completely neglected. If I played this it would be a pair, at most, and from the sideboard vs decks that have interaction.

The fact we have a format where we can play both Thoughtseize and Thought Erasure is kind of amazing. I wouldn’t play more than two of this if you play it in the main deck. Manipulating the top of your library can help provide you better cards to draw, and perhaps fuel Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy so he can transform sooner.

Sadly we’re going to have a problem with larger permanents. From Nissa, Who Shakes The World to Arclight Phoenix, this is the level on the curve many Magic: the Gathering players base their decks around. Keep in mind this hits any permanent that costs 4 or more mana to cast. Creatures with X in their cost more often than not don’t have a converted mana cost of 4 or more when they are in play. For example Walking Ballista has a cost of 0 when it sits on the battlefield.

Outside of other obvious inclusions such as Fatal Push, there are quite a few cards to try out. Pay attention to your local metagame to make sure you are prepared.


Abzan Midrange

Creature (21)
Siege Rhino
Courser of Kruphix
Sylvan Caryatid
Fleecemane Lion
Brimaz, King of Oreskos
Wingmate Roc

Instant (8)
Hero’s Downfall
Abzan Charm
Dromoka’s Command

Planeswalker (3)
Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

Sorcery (4)

Land (24)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Windswept Heath
Temple of Malady
Caves of Koilos
Llanowar Wastes
Mana Confluence
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sideboard (15)
Drown In Sorrow
Anafenza, the Foremost
Glare of Heresy
Bile Blight
Nissa, Worldwaker
Utter End
Back to Nature

The flagship deck early on in this era, Siege Rhino and friends were found throughout decks until it left Standard. This was one of the early signs of the power scale shifting towards creatures, and as new cards were released more keywords and abilities were added to creatures. A 4/5 trampling Rhino with a Lightning Helix attached to it which triggers when it comes into play felt really powerful; perhaps too powerful. However over time it just became another card, and this deck was deemed as “fair” for what it was doing.

How the deck works

Your ideal start is to chain a turn one Thoughtseize into a turn two Sylvan Caryatid, and then play a Siege Rhino on turn three. Protect your few threats, and attack for the win.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s essentially Jund, but you swap out the red for the white.

As much as that sounds simple, it truly is that simple.

Pioneer impact

The first card I thought of when looking at this archetype is Hero of Precinct One. Your spells in an Abzan deck are mostly multi-colored allowing you to create a lot of creatures. Couple this with Sorin, Solemn Visitor and you have an aggressive force gaining you life as well as dealing damage.

Definitely the most important removal spell in this format you can destroy anything, including a land. Pair this with the above suggestion for yet more value. Assassin’s Trophy should be an auto include.

Viewed as some of the best removal spells for their respective colors Mortify, and Putrefy provide a lot of utility that can be beneficial to your matchups. I would only run a few of these with one or two in the main deck, and one or two in the sideboard.

If the additions seem linear, or simple, trust me that it’s not. Anyone who has played Jund (and understand the need for a “Jund Box”) will understand what I mean. Again pay attention to your metagame, and prepare accordingly.


Atarka Red

Creature (17)
Eidolon of the Great Revel
Monastery Swiftspear
Foundry Street Denizen
Goblin Rabblemaster
Lightning Berserker

Instant (23)
Stoke the Flame
Dragon Fodder
Lightning Strike
Atarka’s Command
Wild Slash
Hordeling Outburst

Land (21)
10 Mountain
Mana Confluence
Wooded Foothills
Bloodstained Mire
Sideboard (15)
Searing Blood
Arc Lightning
Goblin Heelcutter
Destructive Revelry
Hall of Triumph

Go fast. Turn left. The return of the dominance of mono red, or red with a slight splash, aggressive decks begins here. You are the one providing the beatdown, and this deck should appeal to you if you want to be very aggressive.

How the deck works

You want to deal as much damage as possible, so make sure you watch how your opponent counters your play. Use your removal spells efficiently to remove blockers, and kill problem creatures. The plan here is pretty straightforward.

Pioneer Impact

You can’t go wrong playing Hazoret the Fervent here. An aggressive top end of the curve, Hazoret prevents a near unstoppable threat. There are very few exile effects in Pioneer (Despark is the first thing that comes to mind) so a lot of opponents won’t be able to deal with this. You may be low on cards when you cast this anyway, and it having haste helps you stay aggressive as you try to close out the game. The ability to discard cards for additional damage can be useful if you play with creatures that have the Dash ability, allowing you to discard them when they are no longer useful.

Red decks can be pretty hungry for mana, and Runaway Steam-Kin can help build up that mana. Powering out instant speed burn spells when you are tapped out, or perhaps providing enough mana to make Banefire uncounterable, this elemental packs quite a punch. In a fast, and aggressive deck like his power can grow quickly.

Cavalcade of Calamity is one of the strongest red cards printed in a while. Turning all of your small creatures into lethal threats, it only takes a few turns for the opponent to lose the game if this goes unanswered. A lot of the aggressive creatures have one power. From Monastery Swiftspear, to the card just mentioned in Runaway Steam-Kin, and Lightning Berserker there are plenty of creatures that will benefit from this card, and if they have Haste then that’s only going to benefit you.

Red can pack quite a punch, especially in a format so light on low cost spot removal. Don’t discount their diminutive stats as even one or two points of damage could be the difference in winning or losing a match.

(Bonus) Reanimator

Sultai Reanimator

Creature (24)
Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
Courser of Kruphix
Satyr Wayfinder
Hornet Queen
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Sylvan Caryatid
Doomwake Giant
Torrent Elemental

Enchantment (3)
Whip of Erebos

Instant (9)
Murderous Cut
Hero’s Downfall
Bile Blight

Land (23)
Opulent Palace
Llanowar Wastes
Polluted Delta
Temple of Malady
Yavimaya Coast
Temple of Mystery
Windswept Heath
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sideboard (15)
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Stain the Mind
Reclamation Sage
Drown In Sorrow
Bile Blight
Torrent Elemental

Sultai Reanimator was a pleasant surprise in this Standard as giving players an opportunity to use their graveyard as a resource was something that had not been tapped into for a few years thanks to the presence of Rest In Peace, and before that Grafdigger’s Cage. Now that we can abuse the graveyard, what are the better options to bring back?

How the deck works

Stock your graveyard with Satyr Wayfinder, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Then use Whip of Erebos to bring back a big creature to turn the corner. Don’t forget the whip grants your creatures Lifelink allowing you to pull ahead of the aggressive decks, and it is also an enchantment that triggers Doomwake Giant when it enters the battlefield.

Pioneer Impact

How big is the creature that you want to reanimate? There are plenty of options available, however I want to talk about these three in specific. You also may want to adjust the mana to be able to play these normally. Angel of Serenity can be the piece you need to remove opposing blockers, or to get back cards such as Satyr Wayfinder, or Tasigur, the Golden Fang.

If you somehow have both Gisela, the Broken Blade, and Bruna, the Fading Light on the battlefield when one of them comes back via Whip of Erebos they both can remain on the battlefield together.

You can put the Merge mechanic on the stack so that it will resolve before Whip of Erebos needs to exile a creature on your end step. When you do it this way both angels will come back as this Eldrazi Brisela, Voice of Nightmares. How awesome is that? You have a 9/10 that avoids most spells, and has the keywords of both halves of the cards that made it. Now I know this feels like an achievement similar to operating a Rube Goldberg machine, but if you can get this payoff make sure to post it on social media to share. Who doesn’t want to assemble a 9/10? Editor’s note: some preliminary Google results indicate that this actually works due to the Whip requiring the reanimated card to be exiled. As it indeed IS exiled by the Meld effect, Whip is satisfied. It does not care that Meld goes on to bring the cards BACK to the battlefield as a new creature.

(Bonus 2) Heroic Aggro

Azorius Heroic

Creature (16)
Hero of Iroas
Battlewise Hoplite
Favored Hoplite
Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
Seeker of the Way

Enchantment (11)
Ordeal of Thassa
Ordeal of Heliod
Aqueous Form
Stratus Walk

Instant (13)
Defiant Strike
Gods Willing
Ajani’s Presence
Feat of Resistance
Triton Tactics

Land (20)
Flooded Strand
Temple of Enlightenment
Mana Confluence
Sideboard (15)
Glare of Heresy
Disdainful Stroke
Stubborn Denial
Treasure Cruise
Seeker of the Way

I couldn’t write an article about this era, and not talk about a deck with the Heroic keyword. While a Boros deck may seem more apt due to its aggressive nature, the Azorius version plays more like the Mono Blue Aggro deck that was recently in Standard. Taking a more aggressive stance to the midrange strategy of “play one threat, and protect it” this deck is quite low to the ground, and can get you out ahead quickly.

How the deck works

You want to play an early threat such as a Favored Hoplite, and then protect it with spells and enchantments, watching it grow with each casting. The deck became popular not only due to it’s relatively inexpensive construction, but also due to opponents discounting the threats as minimal. That alone gave the deck a lot of wins that similar decks may have not received in the past. Often times creatures of a rarity less than Rare are overlooked by opponents, and that is something this deck can take advantage of.

Pioneer Impact

While your creatures may not get through unblocked all the time, having a Curious Obsession on a creature with Heroic essentially gives it +2/+2, making it not profitable for your opponent to block. Follow that up with a timely Dive Down, and you can protect it while also giving it another +1/+1 counter. Spell Pierce not only helps with protecting your creature, but it can keep you up-tempo by countering a big play from your opponent. Not many things provide the joy of countering a Nissa, Who Shakes the World with Spell Pierce.

As you can see, there were many viable options in this era of Standard, and a lot of them started playing more to the board through creatures, enchantments, and a few planeswalkers. Providing players a lot of options for deck construction can make for a healthy format.

In Conclusion

As much as I yearned for the previous Standard (because I love Azorius Control decks) even I had to step out of my comfort zone with some of these options. There was a lot of play in this era, and no single deck felt overpowered for the duration of Standard. As much as the format felt like wins were accumulated through creature combat, this was a fun era to play. There was excitement due to Modern having access to all of the fetchlands, and popularity in the format began to rise. The impact these sets, especially the expansions later in this era, have had on the game as a whole can still be felt to this day.

Your Thoughts

I know many players who didn’t start playing Magic until this time. What did you like about this era of Standard? What cards from these sets do you want to play in Pioneer? Let your voice be heard by leaving a comment below, and follow me on both Facebook as well as Twitter.

Next Time

Tomorrow we move forward, and into an era where one asks: “Did we really Battle For Zendikar?”

Until then…



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