What’s good, Spirit Squad!

Today we have a LOT to talk about in the context of Pioneer. We just saw two cards banned, one potentially huge card unbanned, and all of this is only a week-and-a-half ahead of the American Regional Championship (as of the time of this writing). This may be one of the biggest Banned and Restricted (B&R) updates we’ve seen in a very long time.

To begin, we’ll mention Modern (and it’ll get its own article next time!): Fury and Up the Beanstalk are both banned, with no other changes to Modern. All I’ll say on that, for now, is that Merfolk pilots like myself and Nikachu are probably amongst the happiest humans on the planet as a result of this.

So! Pioneer! Both Geological Appraiser and Karn, the Great Creator are no longer allowed in the format. This is a HUGE deal, as the Appraiser combo deck was the fastest and most consistent combo deck in all of Pioneer, and Mono-Green Devotion without Karn is effectively dead. In exchange, we’ve been given Smuggler’s Copter, which is an absurd Magic card. All three of these changes will have long-lasting changes on the format, and the fact that these things are happening right before the single biggest Pioneer tournament of the year is going to have a huge impact on competitive Magic.

OK, so cards are banned and one thing got unbanned. Why?

As for Geological Appraiser, it was the enabler for a combo deck that aimed to resolve the now-banned card:

…and Discover itself into a copy of Eldritch Evolution, the only eligible Discover target in the deck. The Evolution would get Trumpeting Carnosaur, which also has Discover. The Carnosaur could then Discover Clone effects like Glasspool Mimic to make a giant pile of 7/6’s to go with the 3/2, and then a big card like Doomskar Titan to give the team Haste. The part I haven’t mentioned yet is that the deck plays 4 copies each of Magma Opus and Creative Outburst to create Treasure tokens, accelerating the combo to a Turn-3 kill instead of a Turn-4. Since the deck plays those two spells, another option the deck had was to use your Evolution on the Appraiser and turn it into a Torrential Gearhulk, casting one of the huge spells you discarded for maximum value.

The fact that the combo is powerful isn’t what got the Appraiser banned. Greasefang and Lotus Field Combo may both beat it in terms of versatility and raw power, respectively. What got it banned is its extreme consistency and ability to “do the thing” on Turn 3 instead of Turn 4.

As someone who’s great against combo decks, I will cry a little at night over the next week, but it’s overall healthier for the format to not have this nonsense so it’s gone.

Next, we have a card that people have been complaining about for some time now: Karn, the Great Creator.

Karn’s fantastic in every format it’s allowed in (including Vintage, where you’re only allowed one!), as it makes sure its pilot has the perfect card for every scenario, even in Game 1. In the more powerful eternal formats, you have access to cards like Force of Negation, Force of Will, and Subtlety, but in Pioneer you just kind of had to use a “real” counterspell on Karn or take the L to whatever wild artifact he’d get out of the sideboard. Mono-Green Devotion was a deck that didn’t really mind the fact that you didn’t get to play with a real sideboard, since it just wants to do the same powerful thing every game anyway.

Because of this lack of punishment for playing Karn, and the fact that he can come down as early as Turn 3 in the Devotion deck, Karn kinda had to go. Once again, I’m a sad Dre because Mono-Green Devotion is a deck Spirits handles easily, but it is overall healthier for the format for Karn to not be a part of it.

Remember that time I said that Malcolm, Alluring Scoundrel reminded me of a card that would see play if we were allowed? (If not, here you go! State of the Spirit Address: Ixalan Edition)

Now here’s a guy (American football fans, that was on purpose) we haven’t seen played in anything in a long time! Smuggler’s Copter got itself banned from both Standard and Pioneer, and for good reason: it’s a hilariously efficient card that can go into practically any deck that already wants to play creatures. A Crew value of just 1 means that practically any creature can be used for the Copter, which separates it from similar (read: worse) cards like Esika’s Chariot and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and the fact that it has Flying separates it from similarly-costed Vehicles like Silent Submersible and the new Subterranean Schooner. It’s also Colorless, which is also Kind of a Big Deal (TM).

I’m prepared to hear about the entire format revolving around this card, and I think everyone else should be as well. In the last few preliminary events as of the time of this writing, Smuggler’s Copter was hands-down the most played card in each of them.

OK, so what in the world should I be playing then?

As always, my first piece of advice is this: play what you’re comfortable with. If you were playing Rakdos Midrange before the ban and you have like 600 matches under your belt, you should probably play Rakdos Midrange. But here’s what I think are the biggest winners and losers are from the Banned & Restricted shakeup.

Rakdos Midrange: huge winner, maybe even the biggest in all of Pioneer! Smuggler’s Copter is a card that can go into Rakdos Midrange, but Rakdos is also in the best position to be able to deal with it between Fatal Push and cards like Kolaghan’s Command or Abrade, all of which Rakdos lists can or do already play. Mono-Green Devotion losing Karn and Appraiser slowing the combo decks down are also both great for Rakdos pilots.

Abzan Greasefang: the Fang Gang is back! Smuggler’s Copter is both a Vehicle and a discard outlet, two points which basically scream “jam four copies of me right now” as part of Greasefang’s primary plan. The fact that Arclight Phoenix is super-popular right now also means that Spirits decks are almost nowhere to be found, so your worst enemy is nowhere to be found currently. It does mean you should expect more Graveyard hate than usual, so be ready for that.

Lotus Field Combo: Smuggler’s Copter entering the format means that more players will be aiming their sights at Creature decks. Lotus Field is probably the deck that’s least likely to care about Copter in all of Pioneer, and the same “less Spirits in the format” argument applies here, just like it does in Greasefang.

Azorius Control: now’s a pretty good time to be an Azorius pilot. You generally want to fight against matchups where counterspells and sweepers are good, and both are great right now. There’s a lot of combo decks in the format now that Discover Combo and Explore Combo exist, and popular aggro decks like Boros Convoke, Boros Heroic, Mono-White Aggro, and Mono-Red Aggro mean that Azorius Control is likely to be one of the top decks going forward.

Izzet Phoenix: nothing specifically happened to make Izzet Phoenix good per se, but the environment that will likely shape around Smuggler’s Copter bodes well for Phoenix. Also of note: Arclight Phoenix decks took up ALL FOUR of the top 4 spots in the Canadian Regional Championship, and Phoenix decks are unaffected by the B&R changes. Sometimes no news is good news!

Gruul Aggro: Gruul is in an oddly positive place right now. When you have decks like Rakdos Midrange and Azorius Control in the format, Gruul becomes more appealing. Between the fact that a lot of your cards like The Huntsman’s Redemption and Esika’s Chariot create 2-for-1’s and cards like Reckless Stormseeker give Haste, you have a surprisingly great matchup against a lot of the grindier decks in the format while still retaining enough aggressive speed to compete with the combo decks.

Azorius Spirits: Spirits is one of the decks I’d avoid if you’re not experienced with it. Between the fact that Rakdos Midrange and Izzet Phoenix, two very hard matchups, are at the top of the format, and the fact that Smuggler’s Copter is bigger than every individual Creature in your deck, it’s a rough time to be a fan of my favorite fliers.

Boros Convoke: I think that Boros Convoke is going to be one of the most-represented decks at the American Regional Championship, but I think it’s going to be one of the worst-performing decks there. Thanks to Copter entering the format (which you should probably play!), players are going to be prepared than ever to remove small Creatures, and that’s basically your entire deck.

Rakdos Sacrifice: I think Rak-Sac is going to be in a bit of a weird place. It’s definitely a deck that can make great use of Smuggler’s Copter, but Copter decks are a known quantity so you’ll get fewer free wins against Creature decks like Spirits and Mono-White Humans. Instead, you’ll be dealing with decks like Izzet Phoenix and Gruul Aggro, neither of which find you terribly difficult to deal with.

Mono-Green Devotion: while Devotion isn’t literally dead, it’s easily the biggest loser of the B&R shakeup (if we’re not counting the deck that doesn’t exist anymore). Between Phoenix being the best deck in Pioneer and Karn no longer being allowed, I’m straight-up telling y’all to avoid this deck like the plague.

Quintorius Combo: while popular, the Quintorius Kand combo deck (Kand-bo?) been one of the worst-performing decks over the Regional Championships and Magic Online tournaments these last few weeks. Now that Geological Appraiser isn’t allowed anymore, this deck is somehow even worse than it was before. Also, avoid this deck like the plague.

Mono-White Humans: I think Humans is in a surprisingly great place to pull off a result or two. Between Cavern of Souls being printed into the format, Smuggler’s Copter being unbanned, and Get Lost being able to help with opposing Temporary Lockdown, I think Humans is a lot better than people are giving it credit for. I wouldn’t be surprised if Humans featuring the new Kellan, Daring Traveler to be one of the breakout decks at the American Regional Championship.

OK, that’s a lot of information. So what should we be playing?

As we can see above, I think there are plenty of reasonable choices available to the format right now. If I weren’t basically a walking Hallowed Fountain, then I’d be choosing between:

  • Azorius Control, with 4 copies of Temporary Lockdown and 2+ copies of Dovin’s Veto in the main deck,
  • Dimir Phoenix, with 2 copies of Cling to Dust in the main deck and a hard piece of Graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void in the sideboard, or
  • Mardu Greasefang, with 4 copies of Smuggler’s Copter, 2 copies of Cavern of Souls, and 1 or 2 copies of Kolaghan’s Command in the main deck.

These are the decks I believe won the most from the recent changes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a deck like Humans or Gruul Aggro have a stellar weekend. However, if you’re experienced with one of the decks that’s either well-positioned or even medium, I’d say to play what you know. Experience matters a LOT when you’re playing in a high-caliber tournament, so if you have it then use it.

Either way, I hope to see some of y’all in Atlanta. As for everyone else, I’ll see y’all on the next one!

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