As soon as Pioneer was first announced, I got very excited at the prospect of brewing decks for a brand new format. I wasn’t able to keep up with the fast-paced rate of bans intially, and I’ve been spending what little time I have fine-tuning my new Modern deck lately. Suffice it to say, my focus has been elsewhere. That said, now that Pioneer is settling down, I want to spend a little bit of time tinkering with some brews.

The very first deck I designed for this new format was inspired by decks like X-Rack, with the goal of emptying my opponent’s hand as quickly as possible. It might not be the friendliest archetype, but I wanted to try building something a bit more competitive. My approach was a bit different from the Smallpox-filled decks of other formats, but I think it shows promise:

Mono-Black Hand Attack


List by Ben Iverach-Brereton

My focus was on creatures like Kitesail Freebooter and Brain Maggot, who rip away key pieces from my opponent’s hand and hold them in exile. I blame Yarok’s Fenlurker for the idea; Core 2020 had just come out when I started puzzling over Pioneer decks, and I had just recently drafted the Horror. It was a decent card, and as a two-mana card that attacked the opponent’s hand, it immediately reminded me of the Freebooter and Maggot.


Finding Multiple cards that have a similar effect is always something to look for when coming up with a deck from scratch; redundancy provides consistency, and consistent decks are generally stronger. This is why so many Modern decks will run both Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek, for instance; this way they have five to eight cards that do the same thing, instead of just four. This means that every game you can be reasonably confident to draw one in your first few turns. Given that the Freebooter, Maggot and Fenlurker all do roughly the same thing, a deck with up to twelve copies of the same kind of creature will almost always draw multiple copies of them each game.

They’re Only One Power

If these hand-attack creatures were going to become the core of my deck, I needed an actual plan on how to win; attacking with 1/1 creatures isn’t generally enough unless you’re flooding the board with them. What’s more, Brain Maggot and Kitesail Freebooter return the cards they exile when they die, so a chain of removal spells could undo all of my hard work.

My first though had been to run Shrieking Affliction and Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage as payoffs for emptying my opponent’s hand, as is tradition in X-Rack decks. Davriel made the final cut, since he’s still useful even if my opponent still has a hand full of cards, but Shrieking Affliction felt too unreliable to me. The enchantment often makes the cut in Modern, but those decks can also attack mana bases and don’t rely on fragile 1/1 creatures to keep cards exiled. I found a few other ways to make the deck work, so having a few copies of Davriel feels like enough direct payoffs for an empty-handed opponent, but I’d be willing to reconsider Affliction‘s omission at some point.

It’s a Lot to Process

The other big problem I was running into was how to keep my opponent from top-decking a wrath like Supreme Verdict and getting all of their cards back from under my Maggots and Freebooters. This led me to use a sneaky trick I had seen used a few years ago in some budget Modern decks involving Eldrazi Processors.

For those of you who were around during Battle for Zendikar, you may remember Eldrazi Porcessors, and their unique ability to take your opponent’s exiled cards and use them as a resource. (This mechanic also featured heavily in my Eldrazi Horde cooperative Magic format from a few years ago, which longtime readers may remember.) There were never a lot of these Processors at less than five mana, but of those, Wasteland Strangler is almost certainly the best; by moving an exiled card an opponent owns into their graveyard, the Strangler gives a creature -3/-3, effectively turning a card you’ve already exiled into a free removal spell.

What’s especially sneaky is that if you move the card exiled with Kitesail Freebooter to its owner’s graveyard, the opponent won’t get anything back if they remove the Pirate: the Freebooter‘s ability only looks at the exile zone for the card it took. Once the card is moved to the graveyard, the ability can’t find it anymore! The same is true of cards exiled with Brain Maggot. This trick also works with cards like Banisher Priest and Spell Queller, if you were wanting to use it in other decks, and some lists will even combine all of this with an Eldrazi Displacer to repeatedly eat cards.

While I don’t need to worry about cards coming back with Yarok’s Fenlurker like I do with Maggots and Freebooters, the fact that the Fenlurker also exiles a card means that Wasteland Strangler will always have plenty of fuel. Plus, in a world of Murderous RidersBonecrusher Giants, Light Up the Stages, and creatures Escaping from graveyards, Wasteland Strangler looks even more consistent; my opponents will be filling their exile zones for me!

They’re Only One Mana

Decks that rely on hand attack really need to get started as early as possible, and having some number of one-mana discard spells seemed like an obvious inclusion. Pioneer isn’t generally as blisteringly fast as Modern, but you still want to disrupt your opponent before they have a chance to do anything meaningful.

The obvious choice in Pioneer is to use Thoughtseize, but I have two problems with that: one, I don’t own any and I’d rather keep my Pioneer decks a bit more budget friendly, and two, I find Thoughtseize uninteresting. Because it’s so much better than virtually any other discard spell in the game, you see it everywhere. (In the context of Modern, it’s debatable whether Inquisition of Kozilek is actually the better discard spell or not, and Hymn to Tourach might still beat both of them in older formats, but that is a debate for another time.) I may also be somewhat biased against Thoughtseize, since it was its printing in the original Theros that was one of the reasons I never pursued Standard to any degree. I’ve never really enjoyed playing against the card, so I’d rather not use it myself.

Thankfully, because I’m focusing more on exiling cards from my opponent’s hand than just discarding them, I can justify playing around with the far more intriguing Specter’s Shriek instead of my old nemesis Thoughtseize. Obviously, against non-black decks losing a card of my own is a lot worse than losing two life, but in playtesting I’ve found that I almost always have a card in my hand I’m willing to sacrifice to the cause. Emptying my own hand also has its benefits in this deck, but I’ll get to that shortly.

With Specter’s Shriek taking up the bulk of my turn one discard, I knew I wanted a second card for consistency. Again, I was disinclined to use Thoughtseize, so I looked at some of the more situational discard spells. I landed on Duress, which is a bit atypical for the main deck, but hits a lot of cards I’d be worried about.

First and foremost, Duress takes out removal spells that might target my Kitesail Freebooters and Brain Maggots. What’s more, Duress also takes out planeswalkers; with their steady stream of card advantage each turn, it’s easy to get buried under ‘walkers, and they can often be enough for a player to come back from being empty handed.

Dies to Doomblade

Planeswalkers aren’t the only card type to watch for, mind you. If I wanted to ever attack with my small creatures I’d also need a way to keep the battlefield clear of threats. Fatal Push is a fine card for small threats, but without Fetchlands in Pioneer, the near-universal utility it enjoys in Modern just isn’t there.


In order to destroy larger threats in this format, you generally need to spend at least two mana. I’m alright with that; truth be told, I was excited to build a deck in a format where literal, actual Doom Blade was a viable option. It’s probably not the best choice overall, but it’s a classic card in my eyes. Plus it’s just a sweet card. I did make sure to diversify my removal a bit to include Cast Down, and I topped off my removal suite with some Murderous Riders that I was lucky enough to open in booster packs.

Sign on the Bloodline

One of the other things that got me overly excited about Pioneer was the opportunity to run Sign in Blood again. Like Doom Blade, Sign in Blood is one of those iconic black spells that saw a lot of play around the time I started playing, so it holds a special place in my heart, about as far away from Thoughtseize as you can get.


There have been a lot of variations of Sign in Blood over the years, like Painful Truths and Foreboding Fruit (or one of my personal favorites, Read the Bones), all of which trade life for cards. Flavourfully they’re all great, but it’s hard to beat a good Sign in Blood in terms of power. Two mana for two cards is wonderfully efficient; it’s about the best rate for raw card advantage that you can get in modern Magic, and losing two life for that privilege is a pretty minimal drawback. The fact that you can sometimes target your opponent and finish them off with your Sign in Blood is just icing on the cake.

All that said, this deck really wanted other sources of card advantage than just Sign in Blood. A lot of mono-black Pioneer lists are using Castle Locthwain as a painful but reliable way to draw extra cards. Like most other players, I came to the same conclusion about the utility of the Castle and made sure to include four copies; what’s especially great is that this card fits into my land slots, so I don’t have to dedicate as many nonland slots to card draw. This lets me squeeze in more interaction and creatures, which is a huge bonus.

As painful as Castle Locthwain can be, if you can get empty-handed you don’t lose that much life, which is why I generally don’t mind giving up a card with Specter’s Shriek. Often I’ll just exile a spare Swamp early on, which can save me one or more life later when I’m digging for my interaction.

Can You Spare a Card?

Rounding out my suite of card advantage, I also have Nightveil Specter to steal cards from my opponent. While maybe a bit weird, insofar as I may never be able to cast the spells I exile with it, the fact that the Specter works well with both Wasteland Strangler (because it exiles cards) and Castle Locthwain (because I get access to more cards without increasing my hand size), it feels like a nice fit.

I was very tempted to splash blue mana for Thief of Sanity and Drown in the Loch in this deck, both of which I think are very powerful cards for Pioneer, but I ultimately decided to stick to one colour. This makes my mana base significantly cheaper, and makes the deck a lot more consistent.

First Impressions

After my first few games with the deck I’m pretty pleased with how the deck performed. I’m sure this won’t be the final iteration, especially when it comes to the sideboard, but my Simic Delver deck for Modern taught me just how many iterations it can take to land on the “final form” of a deck. I also know just how fluid that final form needs to be to constantly adapt to the shifting metagame around it. With all of the new innovations happening in Pioneer, I’m sure I’ll need to make some changes to keep up.

In general, this deck feels really mean when I get a good draw. I rip apart my opponent’s hand leaving them with absolutely nothing, all the while chipping away at their life total and destroying anything they put on the battlefield. Even when I only have a moderate draw, I do a decent job of enacting my game plan, though the deck is far from indestructible.

I’m sure to struggle against sideboard cards like Leyline of Sanctity, but that’s to be expected; they’re almost tailor-made to fight this style of deck. I do have some cards in the sideboard to act as my plan B, like Witch’s Vengeance and Gray Merchant of Asphodel, so even if the hand attack plan falls through I have some options available to me. Still, it’s always rough when your deck’s primary game plan gets shut down.

I don’t really expect my list to eclipse the popular mono-black lists that are already floating around, but I think it’s a fun alternative to them. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to let me know in the comments; I’ll process them as soon as I can.

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