Welcome Week: Budget Upgrades for the 2021 Pioneer Challenger Decks

IslandGoSAMe, DarthJacen, Ruckman and rose-emoji bring the 2021 Pioneer Challenger Decks down two different upgrade paths: one with a $50 budget and one with a $100 budget.

Challenge Accepted

Welcome Week rolls on and today we have a budget double-header providing you with both $50 and $100 upgrade paths for 2021 Pioneer Challenger Decks and the 2022 Standard Challenger Decks. As the title says, this one is for the Pioneer Decks. If you want to find the Standard Challenger Decks you can find the article here.

We are lucky enough to have the writing team we do here at PlayingPioneer to have each of the upgrade paths for these decks written by players who are well-experienced in each deck’s respective archetype. Of course as a quick disclaimer, Pioneer prices are currently in massive flux as players prepare for the upcoming return of Organized Play with a focus on Pioneer. Because of this, the suggested upgrades can move in and out of the targeted price range but care has been taken to help make sure they aren’t horrifically off mark. Enough delay, let’s get started!

Mono Red Aggro

By IslandGoSAMe

Red Burn decks have begun to take Pioneer by storm, and after a dominating performance (and win) in the most recent Pioneer PTQ, I’m here to give your Pioneer Mono Red Burn Challenger Deck a nice upgrade!

Base Deck

This deck can be found in most game stores and online websites for about $30, which is a great deal! Out of the box, the game plan of this deck seems to just be to play a bunch of aggressive creatures, and use your mass of burn spells to kill your opponent as quickly as possible. This version utilizes the synergy between Wizard’s Lightning and a few key aggressive red wizard creatures, which we haven’t seen in Pioneer for a bit, but still theoretically can be effective on a budget. In addition to this change, we can also see four copies of Bomat Courier in the maindeck, a card that is usually not seen in red decks. This card was great in Standard due to how effectively it could be used to generate card advantage, but it has been outclassed in Pioneer due to how slow it is. Courier is also much less effective at generating card advantage compared to what we have now, in the form of Planeswalkers, mainly Chandra, Dressed to Kill. If we look to the sideboard, there are a large amount of changes. Magma Spray, Searing Blood, and Goblin Chainwhirler are all there to deal with smaller threats out of opposing aggro decks, which while good in practice, this is not how I have found to be the best way to approach the mirrors. Let’s go over a few changes I would make if you would be willing to throw a few more bucks at this archetype.

Base Deck +$50

One of the more expensive cards that the base deck is lacking is Eidolon of the Great Revel. This two-mana 2/2 turns a TON of matchups upside down, such as Lotus Field, Phoenix, and Spirits. Taxing your opponent whenever they cast most spells in their deck is well worth playing a smaller body. This card is one of the main draws to be playing Mono Red in this format, and sadly, there is no real suitable replacement. Therefore, because it is a $20+ card, we are only able to include two copies of this card in our deck.

The other changes are just cards that were not put in this deck, that really should have been. These are all super cheap, and should be easy pickups. Let’s run through the most important editions.

  • 4 Kumano Faces Kakkazan – One of the best 1 drop ‘creatures’ in the format, it grows your dudes, it enables spectacle, it allows you to exile creatures, this little 1 mana enchantment does everything. Without this card, I do not believe this deck is playable.
  • 4 Play with Fire – Basically a strict upgrade to Wild Slash, being able to scry when you target your opponent is an amazing benefit, it will dig you for whatever you need for the following turns. Remember, you can do this in your own upkeep in order to try to find a land
  • 4 Skewer the Critics – In a deck with a mass amount of burn spells (and 4 Kumano), this is close to a strict upgrade to Lightning Strike

Lastly, there is a complete redesign of the sideboard, adding Lavacoils and Redcap Melees over Magma Spray and Searing Blood so you can have better matchups against Winota and Rakdos Midrange. 

Base Deck +$100

Now, if you really want to make this deck good, throw in another $50, and what does that get you? Well, the main draw to this is that you get to complete your playset of Eidolons! You also gain access to a much better sideboard, in the form of three Rampaging Ferocidon. This card is an all-star against one of your worst matchups – Rakdos Anvil. This not only stops lifegain, but punishes your opponents for putting more creatures into play! This is a bit better than Chainwhirler in those matchups, where although this one doesn’t kill anything and allows you to swing out in a key turn, Ferocidon allows you to play a much longer game against them. Lastly, we get to add one copy of Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance. This is a strict upgrade to the first Mountain in your deck, but it comes up very little. 

Closing

Mono Red is a very decent budget deck, and a great intro to this awesome format! The one other upgrade you really need for this deck is replacing four Mountains with four Den of the Bugbears, but due to how pricy that card is at the moment, you might want to hold off on that card, depending on your budget. Good luck, and happy spell slinging!

Lotus Field Combo

By DarthJacen

With the Organized Play announcement that Pioneer will be a heavily-featured format in the upcoming Regional Championship and Pro Tour in 2023, we’ve seen the online and paper interest in Pioneer explode. With this population increase, most people’s first introduction to the format will come in the form of Twitch stream, YouTube videos, articles, and the Challenger deck series. The Challenger Decks aim to give an out of the box FNM-level competitive deck that you can easily upgrade to a fully competitive deck.

The first four Pioneer Challenger decks included Mono Red Aggro, Azorius Spirits, Orzhov Auras, and Lotus Field. Today, I’m looking at the Lotus Field Challenger Deck fresh out of the box and what it would look like with a $50 or $100 upgrade. How close can we get to an S-tier deck for only $100s and the cost of the Challenge deck? Let’s find out!

Base Deck

The original challenger deck list manages to contain all the pieces needed to combo at bare minimum, along with the powerful pair of lands: Lotus Field and Thespian Stage. While the biggest omissions are in the rest of the mana base, the core of the deck is present in the Challenger deck. I would go so far as to say that out of the box, especially with the Lurrus ban, Lotus Field might be the most competitive deck even if you cannot afford any upgrades.

While you are certainly missing some of the powerful spells like Emergent Ultimatum and Bala Ged Recovery, the main engine of Sylvan Scrying, Pore Over the Pages, Hidden Strings, and Omniscience are all present out of the box and can beat unprepared tiered decks.

Base Deck +$50

If we start with a $50 budget, the first thing we need to upgrade are some of the spell slots. While most of the primary spells are included, there are some reasonably priced upgrades we can use to quickly power up the deck.

Next up, we move to the other spell upgrades in Emergent Ultimatum, which are thankfully cheap, with three copies only costing a total of $7.05. After that, we can upgrade our filter spell from Strategic Planning to the better Shimmer of Possibility for a total of $0.44. Picking up a single copy of Galvanic Iteration for $0.95 rounds out our main deck.

Starting with three Bala Ged Recover, we can spend $11.25 of our budget to increase our constancy and up our land count without having to splurge on the expensive lands that will push us over our limit. Next up, we want to get a single Botanical Sanctum for $7.56. While ideally, we will end up with four Sanctums, on this budget we want to focus on the best spells possible and fill in the optimal mana-base afterwards.

Now that we’ve cleaned up the spell slots in the main deck, we move to the sideboard. Here we are going to fully finish our sideboard for the S-tier version of the deck. Starting with a Fry for $0.09, adding in three Leyline of Sanctity for a total of $16.32, two March of Swirling Mist for $2.20, two Mystical Dispute for $3.12 and finally two Path of Peril for $0.62. These sideboard cards will remain alongside the Thought Distortions and Peer into the Abyss from the Challenger deck all the way through the final version of the deck.

These upgrades get you all the spells in the deck and the only thing you are lacking are some of the upgradable lands for the ideal version of the deck. These upgrades will run you $49.60 total and puts you just under budget!

Base Deck +$100

Moving on to the $100 upgrade, we are going to keep the same $49.60 from above, since we want to keep all our spells and sideboard intact. The additional $50.40 will go directly towards upgrading the deck’s mana base. We start by getting the other three Botanical Sanctums, bringing the total for those four lands up to $30.24. We can also get the two Otawara, Soaring City to help deal with sideboard hate cards for $24.88. Those two upgrades eat through most of our budget, getting us up to a total of $96.16 cost from the original Challenger deck. We end up short one Breeding Pool and two Boseiju, Who Endures away from the final build we were aiming to reach.

We can also grab a Blast Zone for $3.17 to get us up to the full $100 and swap out for one potential Boseiju that we can’t afford on this budget. With the final Blast Zone, we are up to nearly full power, with just a few channel lands missing given their current exorbitant price tag.

Closing

Lotus Field is one of the best value propositions for getting into Pioneer as you can get the Challenger deck and fully upgrade your list to current stock S-tier style lists for just over $166 total. A great deal given it means you can have a top tier deck for around $200, much more affordable than any other eternal format. While you are still missing a few pieces at the $50 and $100 marks, you have all your spells and sideboard included at $50 and you are only missing three cards at $100. With that in mind, I think you could easily crush an FNM level event with the $50 upgrade or the $100 upgrade laid out above.

While there are plenty of viable options in Pioneer, these Challenger are a great introduction to new players that are easily upgradable, iterative, and can win nearly out of the box, a value that’s hard to pass up for the new Pioneer player or the Pioneer player getting back into paper thanks to the Organized Play announcement.

Azorius Spirits

By Ruckman

Let’s take a walk through the mausoleums shall we? While it won’t always be the same version, there’s no doubt in my mind that some variant of spirits will always be relevant in Pioneer. Of course at the moment the low curve efficiency of Mono-Blue is the supreme spiritual power, but if more midrange strategies return to the top of the pioneer meta the concentrated disruptive power of Azorious Spirits could take the throne once again.

Base Deck

Starting off with the deck right out of the box it’s clear that Wizards hasn’t been paying the grounds keeper, because that mana base is rough. Really? Four Temples and Two Check Lands? That’s the best you can do for us? I don’t know if you’ve looked at prices for Hengegate Pathway lately, but the landscaping bill is going to be pretty steep. Aside from that though, we’re off to a decent start. The deck comes with playsets of both of our lords in Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle, as well as full playsets of two very important two drops in Rattlechains and Watcher of the Spheres. So poor manabases aside, things could definitely be worse.

Base Deck +$50

Alright, first thing’s first: let’s finish the playsets of Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller. Wizards was so kind to already give up two of each, and thanks to this deck existing it’ll cost less than $15 to finish both playsets combined. With those two squared away let’s see what else is missing. A lot of the lands we could upgrade are almost immediately out of our price range. Hengegate Pathway will set us back $15 apiece, Hallowed Fountain is $11, and even the new Slow Land Deserted Beach would run us $40 for a playset. So, while it’s not great we’ll finish off the playset of Glacial Fortress for about $10 total. That’s half our budget gone, but we’ve made great headway. From here I suggest $10 for an additional Selfless Spirit to help out the control matchup, and then a playset of Skyclave Apparition at $15 will use the rest of our budget. 

All combined, I think that $50 really goes a long way to sprucing this deck up. The sideboard and manabase are definitely neglected, but we’ve managed to pick up all our other important tribal pieces. Which means this also takes care of a lot of the groundwork if you eventually wanted to take this deck and make it Bant Spirits by adding Collected Company and expanding on the currently middling manabase. Like all of these decks, if you’re looking for an effective in-road for Pioneer. Finding any of these decks for about $30 and giving them a little love will help you find a decent amount of success at the local level.

Base Deck +$100

Building off our initial $50 I think there are two upgrade paths you can potentially take. The first is to spend some money finishing off the sideboard. $10 to finish the playset of Selfless Spiritfor the control matchup, $20 for two copies of Rest In Peace to replace Remorseful Cleric, $16 for a playset of Mystical Dispute, and then the rest of our money either on Archon of Emeria or Portable Hole. However, I think that a lot of what the deck already has in the sideboard can really hold us over till we’re ready for further investment. So while it might be a bit of a cop out, I want to use the second half of the $100 budget on a playset of Hallowed Fountain to help resolve some of our manabase woes. A playset of a Shock Lands for $45-50 is pretty good right now and these have several decks they can be played in making them a worthwhile investment as further explore the format. Both options definitely shore up one of the major deficiencies left behind from our mainboard upgrades, but with a deck as color intensive as spirits I think starting with the manabase is the way to go.

Closing

Despite the expensive manabase upgrades to really bring the Spirits deck up to snuff, I don’t think players will be let down by picking this one up. Unlike the other decks that are generally archetype locked, the Azorious Spirits deck has pieces that can be built on and reconfigured in a number of ways across the main spirit variants. Giving players a lot of variety for their initial investment. However, for those looking for the most competitive bang for their buck right out of the box, you might be better served going with one of the other options available.

Orzhov Auras

By rose-emoji

Orzhov Auras was my Pioneer precon of choice when the decks were released. I opened it, added $20 worth of borderless Brightclimb Pathways to the deck and played an FNM with it all within an hour. The deck felt pretty strong, especially among a field of other players who had also just opened their Pioneer precon decks and sleeved them up for play that night. After the FNM, I bought the remaining three copies of Thoughtseize, which were $13 at the time thanks to its printing into a readily-available preconstructed deck. 

At the time, the Pathways, three copies of Thoughtseize and four Godless Shrines were the only real additions that had to be made to the deck to bring it up to par with the decklist that had been performing in the online meta. Auras was considered one of the most “complete” precons out of the four, but certainly not the strongest one. Of course, Wizards decided on the archetypes that would be included in the precons well in advance, at a time when Orzhov Auras was one of the top decks in the format. At the time of release, though, it had fallen out of favor. A small part of this was the fault of Kaya’s Ghostform being bugged on MTGO, which, interestingly enough, ended up affecting paper play, as many people get their lists from MTGO grinders.

A few months after the precon was released, the deck came flying back into favor with the printing of Light-Paws, Emperor’s Voice, only to be smacked down again by the banning of Lurrus of the Dream Den.

Base Deck

Being one of the more complete precon decks, the deck is certainly playable right out of the box. We got a copy of Lurrus (RIP), a copy of Thoughtseize, a playset of the pain lands and fast lands and all of the auras and creatures that you want to be playing. As far as playability straight out of the box goes, it might have been nice to have gotten the Pathways instead of the single Thoughtseize, but for long-term value I was glad to open the Thoughtseize instead.

As far as playability goes now, the base deck is strictly unplayable out of the box. I don’t mean this in a competitive sense; I mean you can not legally play this deck as constructed, since it contains a banned card in Lurrus of the Dream Den.

Base Deck +$50

With $50, we can make the same upgrades I made to the deck when I bought it on release day. A playset of Brightclimb Pathways still runs about $21 for the non-borderless version and are pretty essential to the deck’s fast-paced play style. We’re also going to add a playset of Fatal Push to the deck, which the precon surprisingly left out. The full playset will run about $14. If you want, you can spring for the FNM Promo version (I wish I did when I was buying my first playset) for about $3 extra for the entire playset.

At the time of writing, we definitely want a couple of Grafdigger’s Cages for the sideboard, which will take up $7 of our budget. This leaves us with $8, which we will use to grab a playset of Light Paws, the Neon Dynasty card that resurrected the archetype by allowing us to tutor and cheat out our auras. Four Light Paws will cost $4, and that leaves us free to grab a 50 cent copy of Kaya’s Ghostform for the maindeck and two Fractures for the sideboard (to deal with Weathered Runestone) at $1.50. We’re coming in slightly under budget, and even more so if you sell or trade in the illegal copy of Lurrus that you got in the base deck for $1.50 in store credit and the two copies of Stonecoil Serpent for $1.50 each.

Base Deck +$100

If you’re going straight into adding $100 worth of upgrades to the deck (rather than making the $50 upgrades above and then making another $50 worth of upgrades), I would skip on one Brightclimb Pathway in favor of one $17 Godless Shrine. On this budget, it’s much more advantageous to grab a shock land in your colors, as having more copies of dual lands accessing both colors in your deck on turn one makes for fewer forced mulligans. 

Otherwise, we’re going to make all of the upgrades we made in the $50 version of the deck, as those swaps are essential to  The entirety of the remainder of the budget is eaten up by two copies of Thoughtseize, totaling $35. Nearly half of the budget being taken up by two cards might feel bad, but these are not only crucial to the deck’s post-sideboard games in certain matchups, but will serve you well in the future should you continue to play decks with black mana. Consider it an investment in your Pioneer future.

Closing

To be honest, if you’re looking to play competitive Pioneer, Auras might not be the precon for you at this point. The Lurrus ban and the printing of March of Otherwordly Light did a number on the deck’s viability that no amount of upgrades can overcome. It doesn’t look like Streets of New Capenna is going to give it much love either. 

That being said, the deflated price of Thoughtseize that the printing of these decks brought on has been largely erased, so if there’s ever an opportunity to grab the precon on a sale for around $20, it could be worth it for that card alone. Before Lurrus was banned, she added $8 of value to the deck as well. The issue is that all of the other cards are very specific to this archetype and don’t see play much anywhere else. My Orzhov Auras base deck has been sitting sleeved in a box for quite awhile, sadly.

The deck could still certainly spike an unsuspecting FNM if you know the meta and know that there isn’t a great deal of targeted removal, and if it’s a playstyle that you enjoy, the base deck is very close to where you want to be in terms of immediate playability.

  • Author / Graphics

    rose-emoji started playing Magic: The Gathering during Battle for Zendikar, then took a break from the game until Throne of Eldraine. Pioneer got him back into Magic full-force, and the launch of Arena on mobile hooked him in forever. Now that his favorite format is working its way onto Arena, he can be found grinding the format to death. Only ever Grixis colors, but sometimes he can have a little Jund as a treat.

  • Editor-In-Chief

    Having started playing Magic shortly before the release of Return to Ravnica, Ruckman’s Magic lifespan covers the breadth of the Pioneer format. Despite not being a stranger to the Top 8 tables of the old IQ and PTQ systems, most of his competitive experience comes from the other side of the event space, where he served more than five years as a level-two judge, only hanging up the black shirt for good at the beginning of 2022. Currently, you can find him making Pioneer content for Crew3 on your favorite podcasting platform or on Twitch/YouTube.

  • Competitive Guide

    Sam is an OG Pioneer player, brewing decks with his team since day one of this format, fleshing out the early metagame with the rest of the MTGO grinders. He knows the ins and outs of the format and spends way too much time playing it. He is known for creating Jeskai Lukka Fires, World Tree Combo, and Omnath Turns, and continues to create new and awesome decks while providing video content for all to consume.

  • Competitive Guide

    Darthjacen has been playing Magic since Dark Ascension and plays Standard, Modern, Pioneer, and Limited. With a Grand Prix win in 2015 and an SCG Team Top 4 in 2019, he continues to pursue competitive Magic at every turn.

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One comment

  1. Excellent article, very in depth and I agreed with most of the suggestions. However, I think for Auras you could actually drop the Black altogether and build Wg which seems to be doing OK judging from the 5-0 lists, where as Wb seems largely absent.

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