Constraints of the Magic: the Gathering Pioneer Format Part 1: The Manabase

The announcement of Pioneer has been a very exciting time for Magic: the Gathering. In just the past week, thousands of new decks have been made in anticipation of the new format. As the format begins to settle within its first few weeks, I’d like to take the time to analyze the format and identify what the constraints of deckbuilding are. How good is the mana in the format, what removal will see play, what sideboard options does each deck want, and what turn do you need to combo off in order to be successful? These constraints inform our deckbuilding process and allow us to design with a purpose and build decks that are targeting the metagame, rather than targeting their own gameplan. Today, I would like to talk about the mana in Pioneer, what it can enable, and the constraints that are associated with it.

The Manabases in Pioneer

A lot of people believe that the manabases in Pioneer are much worse than Modern and Legacy, and will force decks to be mono color and dual color at max. This simply isn’t true. While the mana is significantly worse because of the lack of fetchlands, this doesn’t exclude 3, 4, or even 5 color decks from existing. However, they will have to be much more considerate of the choices in their manabase, and might even have to change the basic structure of their deck to support it.

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Dragonskull Summit by Alayna Danner

One takeaway that might be hard for a lot of people to adjust to is how many more lands each deck is going to have to play. In formats like Modern and Legacy, they have the ability to shave many lands from the deck because of 3 reasons.

  1. They have powerful cards that can cheat on mana such as Aether Vial, Noble Hierarch, or even degenerate strategies such as dredge.
  2. They have access to powerful cantrips such as Ponder and Brainstorm which help to shave lands.
  3. With access to fetchlands, it’s a lot more difficult to get color screwed, which reduces the need for more lands.

Typically, decks in Pioneer will want to play anywhere from 22-27 lands, a far cry from decks like Ad Nauseam Tendrils in Legacy which only has to play 15 lands. This is why it’s important to have a plan for when you flood, whether it is through drawing a ton of cards via a Sphinx’s Revelation or turning your lands into actionable cards in the case of manlands like Mutavault. Manabases are incredibly important Pioneer, perhaps moreso than in older formats, as the lack of fetchlands forces you to carefully consider what colors you need access to at each stage of the game.

Basic Forest by Adam Paquette

 

Colorless Lands

Before I even begin talking about what all of the individual manabases are going to look like, I want to talk about what colorless lands are in the format, and how they might create some restraints. The colorless lands in this format are very good, and there is going to be a lot of desire to play them, especially when the ability to flood is greatly increased. Having something to do even when you topdeck a land is going to be important, and these are all lands that provide excellent value late into the game.

Field of Ruin

Field of Ruin (XLN)

In Modern, Field of Ruin is used in a very fair manner, targeting Tron lands and Celestial Colonades alike. In this format, however, Field of Ruin is going to serve as a fantastic way to punish people for getting too greedy with their mana. Popping a dual land with this is the difference between your opponent casting Nicol Bolas, God-Pharoah or not. This card can also blow up problematic lands such as manlands and Nykthos, which as you will see in the next section, is a very important piece of the puzzle. Because Field of Ruin lets your opponent grab a basic, it’s not the death knell of 3 color decks everywhere, but it will force them to play more basics than they would like.

Mutavault

Mutavault (M14)

The land that can go into almost every deck is back in another format. Tribal seems to be supported much more widely across the board, and Mutavault is a fantastic slot in those decks of course. Beyond that, it is also just the most efficient manland in the format and can provide a simple yet effective wincon. Mutavault will at first see play in tribal decks, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see it pop up in decks without a tribal theme.

Sunscorched Desert

Sunscorched Desert (AKH)

If you’re playing an aggro list that isn’t trying to cast a Goblin Chainwhirler, Suncsorched Desert is a very free source of damage. While it may not seem like it much, it can very well be the difference between winning or losing the game. The desert synergies it provides with Ramunap Ruins cannot be understated either, and provide a fantastic lategame for the deck, even if it starts to flood out.

Arch of Orazca

Arch of Orazca (RIX)

On the flip side of the coin, we have control decks and their plethora of powerful utility lands. This is a section that is dedicated to other cards of this ilk, such as Blast Zone and Geir Reach Sanitarium. There is going to be a desire to play these cards, but 3 color or more decks may struggle to use them effectively, which means that if there is a 2 color control deck, it is much more situated to take advantage of these lands and gain an advantage where a 3 color deck wouldn’t.

Mono-Color Decks

Splashing for another color is an incredibly powerful part of Magic deckbuilding, but the advantage to being in a Mono-Color deck has never been better. Thanks to having both Throne of Eldraine and Theros in the same format, there is a lot of support for a mono-color deck to exist. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is an incredibly powerful land that has never significant Modern play due to the ubiquitousness of Tron. With that deck out of the way, Nykthos might be one of the best ways to get massive amounts of mana in this format. Nykthos isn’t the only land for mono-color decks either. With the Castle cycle, deserts, and powerful colorless lands such as Mutavault, a mono-color manabase will never be as simple as 22 forests.

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

It’s not just Nykthos that encourages mono-color decks. There are good cards in each color that support having a lot of devotion. Whether it be cards with the actual word devotion on them such as Gray Merchant of Asphodel, or simply powerful cards that have a restrictive mana cost like Tempest Djinn, mono-color decks not only have a manabase that is consistent and full of utility lands, they also have lots of powerful cards to draw people in. I expect these decks to do very well in Pioneer, at least until we start to get better mana-fixing.

mono green mana
Sample Manabase (note, play fewer Mutavaults if focusing on devotion)

2-Color Decks

This is where I believe the majority of decks will fall. The mana is perfect for any deck that wants to play 2 colors, and the cards that support these color combinations are some of the most powerful cards Magic has ever seen. With 2 Ravnica blocks in the format, guild decks will be very powerful, and the mana will be very consistent, making it a great option for the start of the format.

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Basic Plains by Richard Wright

However, there is a catch. The mana is good for the deck if it is doing the things that the color pair wants to do. In this format enemy colors have the fast manabase, whereas allied colors have the slow manabase. While everyone will be playing Shocks and Checklands, you need to go deeper than that on your dual lands to support a 2 color deck and that’s when we start to get into the differences in lands that force different playstyles.

 

Faster decks in enemy color pairings have a great wealth of options to choose from. Painlands and Fastlands are both great at giving untapped colored mana on turn 1, a crucial element for these decks, whereas allied fast decks only have the Reveal lands as a way to get an untapped turn 1 dual that isn’t a Shockland.

Boros Mana.png
No untapped mana turn 1

Slower decks, on the other hand, have cards such as the Bicycle lands, and the Tangolands, which are great options, unless you want to play an enemy colored control deck which has fewer options. Still, with cards such as Fabled Passage and the Temples, control decks have a lot more options available even if they aren’t allied colored.

Dimir Mana.PNG
Painless Mana (It’s still probably correct to play Watery Grave)

This brings us to one of the major constraints of the format and leads me to believe that Unclaimed Territory will be a crucial part of many aggressive decks gameplans. For decks like Spirits, the cards are all proven and powerful cards, but the Azorius mana would be lacking if it weren’t for this tribal land picking up the slack. For any aggressive deck that is playing 2 or more colors, this land is a huge boon to their strategy and may force otherwise non-tribal strategies to play more on creature cards to enable better mana. Decks such as Knights have 8 untapped duals that give perfect mana, which is incredible for a 3 color aggressive deck. Unclaimed Territory does make it more difficult to cast cards that aren’t on tribe, which means that removal spells such as Lightning Strike and Cast Down will be more difficult to use, but the upside to the majority of the deck is more than worth the cost.

UW Spirits Mana.PNG
UW Spirits by /u/TheRift289

3-Color Decks

Now, while 3-Color decks will be less consistent, they will still be among some of the best performing decks in the format. Opening up your card pool to 3 different guilds worth of cards gives a massive power boost and a great incentive even if the mana is a little lacking. These decks will be forced to either play more tapped dual lands or will have a painful manabase to enable untapped sources. Branching out into a third color opens up the options for the kind of duals that you can play, and lets you play Painlands if you are a fast 3-color deck, or manlands if you are a slower 3-color deck. If you are playing a wedge color pair, it might be worth it to play 1 or 2 of your uncommon triland as a guaranteed way to ensure your mana. Even Frontier, a format that has fetches, is not against playing a few tri lands to ensure mana consistency.

Mystic Monastery

One of the biggest pitfalls of playing a 3-color deck is that there are far less utility lands available. If you want to play a manland, Mutavault isn’t even an option unless you are feeling really lucky. Even playing something as simple as a castle may prove to be difficult, as your mana might consist mostly of checks and an off-color basic. This means that 3-color decks are more prone to flooding out and not being able to do anything, but this is balanced by the fact that they get access to a much wider card pool. Regardless, a Shock/Checkland manabase will go very far and will enable many different 3 color decks in this format.

Abzan Mana.PNG
Abzan

4-Color and 5-Color Decks

Surprisingly, there are multiple different ways to build a successful 5 color deck in this format and each of them have their own merits. I would just like to mention it here so I don’t have to talk about it 3 times, but Mana Confluence is an amazing 5 color dual, alongside Spire of Industry if you have a heavier artifact theme.

Image result for mana confluence

Mana Confluence

The first method is to pair the 5 color deck with the energy package. Both Aetherworks Marvel and Copycat Saheeli can support a very greedy manabase, thanks to Servant of the Conduit, Attune with Aether, and Aether Hub providing excellent fixing. This means that you’ll want to maximize your turn 1 green sources to provide mana for your Attune with Aether, but from there you can play whatever lands you please.

4C Saheeli.PNG
4C Saheeli

Another option is to play the gates package, as we saw with great success in the Golos Field of the Dead deck that just barely got banned out of Standard. With Circuitous Route, as long as you can guarantee green by turn 4, you’ll have perfect fixing. Playing a manabase that all come in tapped is a problem, but by adding gate payoffs such as Gates Ablaze or even Maze’s End, you can make the drawback less of an issue.

Maze's End mana.PNG
5C Guildgate Golos

Finally, you can always play cards such as Chromatic Lantern or Oath of Nissa to enable your 5 color jank. 5 color superfriends is a very viable deck thanks to Interplanar Beacon and Oath of Nissa providing fantastic fixing for the superheroes of the format.

Conclusion

Manabases of all sorts are very viable in this format. Mono-Color manabases have never looked so good at the start of the format, and have so many options available that 22 forests will simply not cut it. 2-color decks look to be very consistent, but the lack of dual lands that are good in both aggro and control means that some decks may be more hampered by their mana than they would care to admit. Cards such as Unclaimed Territory might be able to fix this problem, however, as long as the creator of the deck is willing to go deeper on their tribe. 3-color decks will be very good but lack a lot of good utility lands and might flood more often as a result. And if you want to go any higher than that, be prepared to make some changes to accommodate either an energy or guildgate deck.

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Basic Swamp by Svetlin Velinov

For the next article in the series, I would like to discuss the removal in this format, and how it being so much worse completely changes what is viable in the format, and what kind of counterplay exists for it. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!