Pioneer’s “Great Filter”

Pioneer has a healthy community that ensures the format has enough spotlight to continue the year-long renaissance it's currently in. But looking towards the future, we have a looming issue that really needs addressing: The “Great Filter” of Pioneer.

Some Quick History

It really sucks to be a competitive player who has lived through a decade of Magic tournaments being the main focus of their hobby for the past ten years. If social media has taught me anything (other than to read things over twice before commenting) then I am not alone with this heightened sense of sentimentality. To watch your favourite game take a few gut punches in its competitive stomach has not been easy. I’ll admit the shift to Arena was somewhat promising at first; we finally had software that was visually appealing that could showcase this game at the level of other major titles in the genre. We geared up to really see what this game was capable of going forward. What a time to be alive.

A few years into Arena’s life, Pioneer was announced as a brand new format a few weeks after the release of Throne of Eldraine and the excitement was palpable. The banning policy was… well honestly, it was really weird. But in context of the bannings that had been hardwired into Standard’s DNA at this point it wasn’t an unreasonable solution. Let the players do your beta-test and ban the problematic cards accordingly.. It’s a quick and dirty solution, but you couldn’t pull the cards on the Modern/Legacy banlist and call it a day, Pioneer had to find an identity through experimentation.

Then as we all know, just three months after Pioneer’s official codification, paper play was put on ice. 

It’s hard to imagine a worse time to kick the legs under a format that had less than six months of lifespan, but those were the cards we were dealt. Pioneer had to adapt to an online environment where Modern was king. It might be the darling format to those reading this currently, but there’s no question the safer option for out-of-store play was the format that had pedigree. Arena support was also cut-away with delay after delay of the supposed “Pioneer Masters” set before getting the axe in the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms State of Play article. There has been no official announcement at the time of writing this that suggests it will be once again worked on.

So that’s it. Pioneer (as the official MtG Wiki suggests in the FIRST PARAGRAPH of the page) was perceptively dead. The format had no official support to move to digital clients outside of Magic: Online where, without an ounce of disrespect, the barrier to entry still remains unreasonably high. Daybreak Games might have a chance to sort that out, but the power of corporate fussiness never fails to impress me.

Alright, so now what? Do we take the format into our own hands as players or do we just move on leaving it on the dusty shelf with Tiny Leaders and Frontier? I mean, that’s a lot of logistical nightmares in-and-of itself to expect the fans to do the story-telling for you. How much fan-fiction will it take to get everyone to notice?

Oh god – they kept writing fan-fiction

It’s funny how you can write your own success if you label it as an underdog story. I’ve seen my fair share of think-pieces on how to address the popularity of the format but the one thing I can say with certainty is that people are still playing it. The Magic: Online queues are healthy and the success stories of various podcasts can be completely attributed to the format’s success.

We have diehard fans with podcasts that have been running almost as long as the format itself:

The Pioneer Perspective, Crew3 Podcast, The First Pioneers and all other casts that produce Pioneer content are a blast to listen to. 

Personalities in the magic community are pushing the competitive edge of this format day after day. The majority of my experience through playing Niv-to-Light has been through the lens of some of the clever minds of the discord server: Claudioh, Tyler O’Brien, Tlatoani, Trifty, DoubleDingos and many more. These are just some of the names that pop up and are willing to help those come to decisions on just one deck. This extends to every individual server related to every single archetype. I don’t have to go further than a soft Google search to find a community passionate about any Pioneer deck, which forms a solid foundation for a widespread yet connected fanbase. I’ll always recommend reaching out to those who know these decks inside and out because their infinite wisdom knows no bounds.

So yes, the strength of this format lies in the small dedicated group that keep saying what should be said; “the format is great, why aren’t you playing it?”. Rather than assuming the worst, people who are on the fence should be jumping in head first to see how awesome it is. If I have to sell you on the promise of fun, I think you’ll be surprised how much value you’re getting.

The Great Filter

So all is well right? We have a healthy community that ensures the format has enough spotlight to continue the year-long renaissance it’s currently in. But looking towards the future, we have a looming issue that really needs addressing: The “Great Filter” of Pioneer. It seems weird to use the vastness of space to contextualise the Pioneer format, but stick with me on this one.

In short, The Great Filter is one theory to a long-standing scientific question of “The Fermi Paradox” and hopes to answer why we have never encountered alien life despite the dizzying size of the universe, it is understood to be an evolutionary wall impermeable to most life. Something within a civilizations history has been a “great filter” that has stopped them from continuing to exist. This could be as simple as failing to evolve into an intelligent species like humans (I’ll leave the jokes to you) or could be as complex as failing to colonize other planets due to space travel not being advanced enough to allow them to leave their planet before the resources of their home planet ran out. A civilisation’s existence can be decimated by nuclear war, global warming, military conflict or just bad values. So many filters are forced upon us and we as a species must pass through each one. Think about how close we were to oblivion with the Cuban Missile Crisis. These filters will keep coming and we must find solutions to all of them. 

When contextualising this into a Magic format, the filters become easy to define, but it becomes more difficult to predict what the next one will be. Pioneer has seen quite a few of these filters since its creation:

Whilst this graph generalises a lot of elements regarding each topic, each of these were another suckerpunch the format had to endure. So far we’ve had one ongoing limitation (which is large-scale paper play being dialed back) along with two major footnotes that hurt the format’s interest. No other format took such a beating from these filters because they were simply too big to die. Even with the complicated mess of Standard, Alchemy and its Historic offspring, at least those had the fortune to be accessible from people’s offices and smartphones. Modern, Legacy and Commander kept going through Magic: Online and webcam play, so much that even WotC saw the opportunity to buy Spelltable to keep the gravy boat on course throughout our time locked up in our homes.

2020 wasn’t easy on the format even without the pandemic grinding everything to a halt. After the quickfire ban philosophy that initially was divided between fear of your deck being banned and excitement that the deck you hate being banned, we settled into a hiatus of bannings, where on the turn of the one and only StarCity Games Open (reading this post really shows how exciting Pioneer was at the turn of 2020) Inverter of Truth, Heliod Combo and Lotus Breach DOMINATED the format all the way to August 3rd 2020 when they were finally banned. At this time, even I was convinced Pioneer was going the way of the dodo. Thankfully the community kept going and innovating before and after these bans. 

“Pioneer is, in essence, a Standard Plus, not a Modern Lite.”

I wont get into the complications surrounding WotC’s decision to restructure the way they pay pro-players. Abolishing the Pro-League, Hall of Fame and other aspects of organised play is still an ongoing issue. WotC insists the focus will be put towards regional events, but the well runs so deep that this great filter has created the next one Pioneer must now jump through: Becoming a transitional eternal format.

In principle, the new player experience for the competitive paper scene would be fairly simple. You buy into Standard for enough time that you eventually grow tired of rotation, so you use your available resources to transition into eternal formats. For years this was always Modern, because the price point was less costly than Legacy and had a larger player base to support you. Simple really; you make your Modern deck from using the binder junk from old Standard decks. Pioneer, in practice, is a much smoother transition because the cost of entry is much lower, plus the viability of old standard cards is much more reasonable. Pioneer is, in essence, a Standard Plus, not a Modern Lite.

The problem is the lack of support the format continues to receive. I’ve always done my best to introduce newer players to the idea of the benefits of non-rotating formats, but the collective efforts of those around me will ensure the conversation is taken away from Pioneer’s strengths and delves into its flaws. Pioneer certainly isn’t dead, but the average local game store community is quick to dismiss it. I was at an event in Milton Keynes, England earlier this February, and although the format was Modern, I took my Pioneer deck along with me in the hopes of playing some games in side events. It was weirdly absent from the playerbase, even in the casual play rooms. I asked a handful of people their thoughts on the format but was dismissed by the usual “dead format” jokes. The one person I did get into a proper discussion with told me they had always been a fan, but never interested to buy a paper version of their deck, sticking only to the Magic: Online queues. This could just be the state of Pioneer’s interest in the United Kingdom (Especially when Axion, the only game in town when it comes to decent sized UK events, is drawing the best players in the region).

However, they said something to me that was the inspiration for this article in the first place: 

“Modern is slowly becoming the new Legacy, with prices to match, I have no idea how a new player would feel being expected to drop the kind of money on a Modern deck, but if I was that player I would reconsider my continued interaction with the game as a whole”.

I mean, he’s right, right? Advising anyone to buy into Modern as their first paper format to me almost feels like gatekeeping. Especially if they want to remain competitive. This isn’t to say Modern doesn’t have budget options, but you can’t live on those options forever. Even at a casual glance, the format is reaching the terrifying four-digit price marks for the majority of decks. I was super lucky to be playing during Khans of Tarkir and had access to incredibly cheap fetchlands. Modern’s popularity can be attributed to the accessibility of those staple cards during that time. If you’re going to have format-defining lands be part of your rotating card pool, then those who were fortunate enough to pick them up had ample opportunity to do so. But now we live in a Standard format where the best fetchland is just a glorified Evolving Wilds. A damn fine card in its own right, but you’d be laughed out of the room for attempting to play it in Modern.

The easy retort to this argument is “well, just play Standard until you’re ready to transition” – and here lies the big fat problem of WotC’s current approach to competitive formats. I may be off base here, but the interest in paper Standard has recently fallen into the abyss now that Arena exists. I genuinely cannot remember the last time I ever saw someone play the format at my local game store since the release of Throne of Eldraine (which coincidentally was the time Pioneer was created). Now, this isn’t helped by the pandemic, but I can say with absolute certainty that Standard is nearly a dead paper format. This isn’t like Pioneer, where the joke is a persistent meme; Standard is genuinely something I never expect to see at a competitive REL event ever again so long as Arena exists.

So why does this matter? Well, simply put, if you don’t have the accessibility of Standard feeding new players into the competitive scene, there’s nothing incentivising the transition to eternal formats. You need to have a format that can be reasonably approachable whilst making sure you aren’t burning a hole in your pocket to do so. Arena can’t provide this because the only eternal format that feeds into it is Historic, which isn’t even a paper-playable format thanks to Alchemy. WotC’s push towards set-based Commander products has only fortified this idea. Hell, get them to play the casual format of their dreams, they only need one of each card anyway!

This is where Pioneer comes in

A lot of what I’m offering as a solution here is only theory-crafting and, for all we know, WotC might throw another curveball our way in due time. But to be frank: Pioneer needs to be rebranded as a pseudo-Standard going forward. This needs to not only be our responsibility as players but also WotC’s responsibility as creators. I’m not too hung up on Pioneer Masters not coming to Arena, but what would be absolutely critical is releasing a paper version. Pioneer isn’t hurting for reprint equity, just looking at the highest value cards shows that the format is teeming with enough value to justify the set. 

One of the best parts of Pioneer is the majority of the staple cards are not the high-value ones. Ulamog, Ceaseless Hunger rarely sees any play, The Great Henge is fringe (at best) and The Scarab God sees play in one or two deck archetypes total. There are of course outliers but these are unavoidable because they’re multi-format all-stars, but these are far lower down the list than some of the high-roller cardboard we see at the top of the list. We can thank Commander for that, and can lean into that to ensure the product sells as well as any other reprint set. 

Okay, so we have a set ready to print, now what to do with it? Well, if the focus of competitive events is at the local and regional level, then we need to give it more of a push than the Pioneer Challenger decks received.

These were a genuinely brilliant product, because they kept the value of staple decks down whilst ensuring the accessibility of the format was within reach of the newer player. These sold out in my local game store, and disregarding the few who buy these to nab Modern cards at a lower price, the Pioneer FNM that coincided was a ton of fun.

Problem is, this isn’t Standard where four decks will cover the majority of playable decks. Pioneer is a huge format with multiple archetypes, spanning across a decade of sets. Four premade decks do not do the format justice for its diversity.

However, if you tie the two products together with similar release schedules, then we really start cooking with gas. 

A strong reprint set combined with updated Challenger decks sounds like a fever dream in reality. WotC would really have to sink a ton of research and money into both at the same time to ensure the releases would coincide. This would be hard enough without the continued supply chains the world currently faces, but such a tsunami of support would be difficult to ignore. The fact of the matter is that if WotC wanted Pioneer to thrive and they saw the profitability of such a movement, we would have already had these products released. Both Modern Horizons sets were hugely successful, and whilst this was mostly due to pushing the power level of the format towards Legacy, it no less ensured Modern’s popularity for years to come. We know more of these sets will happen in the future and likely will be released yearly, so we know the formula works. 

Look, it’s easy to see why Pioneer is still finding its feet: it’s a new format with limited resources trying to hang out with the big swinging businesses that are Modern and Legacy. But we had glimmers of hope when this all started. Starcity Games announced in the article I linked earlier that Pioneer was replacing Standard in all Opens going forward at the time. The interest was overwhelming and despite a pandemic, format stagnation and WotC themselves killing the pro-player lifestyle, this format continues to endure. I don’t think we will see Pioneer fill its shoes for a few years to come, but if the community continues to sing its praises that it very much has earned, this format will become a true GOAT of the Magic Competitive discourse. 

Thanks for your time reading this article; I don’t write something unless my passion is at stake, and Pioneer really has captured my heart.

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3 Comments

  1. Fantastic article Sean.

    My interest in the format has grown recently with the sheer power creep of Modern and the abandoning of Legacy. As you highlighted.

    I’m hopeful the format will grow in popularity now we’re seeing a steady return of paper play.

  2. Great write-up! I have been playing Magic on and off since I discovered the game way back in the 90:s. Mostly off though, so I am in all respects a noob.

    Got back into it when Arena launched, gave up as I grew tired of Standard and the constant need to splash more cash on rotation and my own inability to focus spending on either online or paper, and doing both, and the thought switching to Modern gave my bank account nightmares.

    I recently came back, decided to only play Magic Online, starting out with Pauper, but discovered that Pioneer was now a thing, and it looks really interesting and (while not cheap really) affordable compared to Modern.

    Still haven’t invested in a deck though, but I am absorbing Pioneer content, trying to learn the meta and understand what might be needed before buying in and jumping in to play.

  3. Great article – if you are looking for Pioneer support in the UK Darksphere in London has a weekly event that sees high attendance!

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