Pioneer, just like any other Magic: the Gathering format, is one that is limited by its constraints. If we want to build the best decks possible for it then it is important to understand what is holding the format back, and how we can best take advantage of it. In this article, I want to analyze the removal spells and sideboard options in Pioneer, and how this can potentially shape the format. I won’t be able to cover every single piece of playable removal in this article, but I’ll do my best to discuss what removal I believe will become major players of the format moving forward.
In general, white removal in this format is pretty bad. Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares are some of the most powerful removal Magic has ever seen, and as a result, they haven’t gotten much since Conflux. Some of White’s best removal in Pioneer is largely enchantment based, which while it can be powerful, is not a permanent solution. The options for non-enchantment based removal in white is avaliable, but it is limited in what it can target and whether or not it is instant speed.
If you want to get rid of a creature, no fuss, and no strings attached, Stasis Snare is the card for you. It is the Murder of white, and while that isn’t saying much, this is the closest any other color gets to Murder. Being an enchantment is a problem, but if you need a specific creature gone, Stasis Snare doesn’t ask any annoying questions.
If you move one higher up the curve, you get access to Cast Out, a very flexible and powerful piece of removal. Cast Out has a lot of little things going on that make it a great card. Instant speed lets you hold up countermagic, being able to target any nonland permanent is much better than Stasis Snare, cycling keeps it from being dead when you don’t have 4 lands, and one white pip makes it very splashable. At 4 mana this card won’t be format defining, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few control decks trying this card out.
Continuing along with the Hieromancer’s Cage variants, Conclave Tribunal serves as the polar opposite to Cast Out in what decks it wants to be a part of. Convoke is an incredible mechanic, and in a deck that can assemble a board state quickly, it can even come down without costing any mana. If your field gets wiped, 4 mana is also reasonable enough to pay to stop them from overtaking the game with a Planeswalker. The only thing holding this card back is sorcery speed.
Out of all the removal spells that white gets, this has the potential to be one of the best. For 1 mana, this card does a lot and can slot in a wide variety of decks. For decks that won’t be attacking Sky Tether hard removes the creature from the game unless it has an activated ability. Another great point for this card is if your deck has a bunch of evasive creatures such as Spirits. Getting rid of a flying blocker can often mean the difference between winning and losing the game, and this performs the job excellently. Being an aura means it is especially vulnerable to flicker effects, and it is a sorcery and can’t stop combos such as Saheeli-Felidar. But, for one mana in a color sorely lacking good removal, it does the job well enough.
Moving away from the enchantments, we start to get the conditional removal spells. This is the simplest one of the bunch, and all it asks is that your opponent’s creatures are attacking. Pioneer seems to be a format that is shaping out to have more creatures attacking on average, so this should be able to put in some work. Not being able to disrupt most combos is a point against it, but it should fare well enough.
If it doesn’t matter to you which creature that you are removing, Blessed Alliance gets the option to have much more flexibility. The 2 main modes are of course 4 life and forcing your opponent to sacrifice, but surprise blocks with creatures can easily blow someone out. If bogles prove to be a popular deck, this is a great option against them.
This card is pretty awesome as long as Saheeli is a part of the format. Getting to disrupt their combo at instant speed for 2 mana is very valuable, and it can be useful against any deck that goes tall. Combine this with a nice creature base, and you have a multi-purpose spell that can stop Assassin’s Trophies (more on that card later) and kill their Grim Flayer. It’s too early to tell how prevalent 4 toughness creatures will be, but I believe the playability of this card depends on that detail. For now, this seems like a solid choice.
Declaration in Stone
If someone were to ask me what the best removal spell in white is, this is at the top of the list, which isn’t saying much. A 2 mana permanent detention sphere is definitely a great effect, but being sorcery speed is the main thing holding this card back. Giving them clue tokens for each creature exiled isn’t that big of an issue as long as the game is finishing up at a quick pace, but sorcery speed is what kills it. Killing tokens without giving them clue tokens is pretty cool though.
I have the theory that Disenchant effects will be really good in this format, and Fragmentize is the cheapest option available. There are very few artifacts/enchantments that will see play that cost more than 4 mana, so that drawback won’t really matter unless Paradox Engine starts destroying the format. Being sorcery definitely isn’t ideal, but most artifacts that you want to remove will be able to activate before you can remove them (Aetherworks Marvel) or can be removed when it comes back to your turn (Smuggler’s Copter). If sorcery speed still isn’t doing it for you, Disenchant is a legal card in this format.
Settle the Wreckage
This is my PSA that Settle the Wreckage is legal in this format, and it is still a great magic card. Be careful swinging into 2WW, unless you need all of your basics for a massive Torment of Hailfire. It’s probably still better to be conservative with your attacks and swing for only what you need.
If you know your opponent is going to be playing around Settle the Wreckage and need a hard answer to the board, Fumigate is one of the best options printed. Gaining life for destroying creatures can buy you a couple of turns while they try to rebuild which is perfect for a control deck. Notably, this card also dodges Spell Queller which is going to be a major player in this upcoming format.
Blue doesn’t really have removal perse, which is how it should be. Blue is a great color, and limiting its removal to counterspells and bounce spells is reasonable enough. Blue definitely doesn’t have the powerhouse cards of older formats like Cryptic Command, but it can still put up a good fight. I’d still recommend splashing for another color if you want to permanently answer anything.
Ol’ Faithful will never let you down, no matter what kind of deck you are playing. Countering a game-winning planeswalker, removal spell, or even someone else’s counterspell for 2 mana is all you can ask for. Creatures will slip through, but use the other cards in this article to deal with those.
Out of all the three mana counterspells, Disallow is the most versatile Cancel we have. Countering spells will be it’s primary focus most of the time, but Disallow is a card that can affect the board, even if cards can get through countermagic. Countering a crew trigger, marvel spin, or walker ultimate gives it a lot of versatility if top-decked late in the game. Cancel is still not the greatest Magic card, but Disallow is the best counterspell we have with no strings attached.
Syncopate is a counterspell that is at it’s best in the early game, and late game, but can be a little awkward in the mid-game. On curve, spending 2 mana to counter anything is a very powerful ability, and in the late game as long as you have the same amount of lands as your opponent, they won’t be resolving anything. Despite its awkwardness at times, Syncopate will still be a valuable card for control decks moving forward.
This card is everything a control deck wants. While it may not be the most efficient at either role, being a 3 cost Mana Leak, and 3 mana Anticipate, Supreme Will having both options is what makes this card great. This may not be a 4 of in every control deck, but I will enjoy casting this card again.
Unsubstantiate isn’t the kind of card you play when you are looking to prolong the game for as long as possible. This is the card that is there you want to combo off and don’t want your opponent to stop you. On their end step bounce their Hushbringer and make infinite cats. Return their Negate back to their hand and resolve your Jeskai Ascendancy. Bring this in from the board, and laugh at your opponent’s pitiful attempts to stop you.
Brazen Borrower is simultaneously a threat and interaction which is very powerful to have in a card. In tempo decks, Brazen Borrower will be an amazing option for disrupting the opponent, and you can always cast the 3/1 if your opponent doesn’t do anything counterspell worthy. Not being able to bounce your own permanents is a downside, as there will be times you will want to save your own cards, but the upside of drawing a faerie outweighs the minor downside.
While the text on the card is simple, the play patterns surrounding Unsummon are actually pretty complex. One of the best uses of this card is bouncing your own creature in response to a removal spell. The tempo this provides is also fantastic at one mana, and can really set your opponent back if casting the creature was a major investment. The leaner a format gets, the worse this card is, but without any significant one or two mana threats, Unsummon might prove to be a useful tool in tempo decks.
A blue card that says “destroy target creature” is definitely worth looking into, especially when that card costs only 1 mana and is instant speed. If the 3/3 is not a concern to you, either because you play creatures with 4 toughness or flyers, then this could be a potential slot for your deck. However, against more aggressive decks, turning their 1/2 into a 3/3 is often just a straight power boost for them. This gives you points against combo but loses against aggro, so as long as you understand what you lose and gain by playing this card it should perform well for you. Reality Shift is another option to have that is much better against aggro but loses a lot of efficiency.
This is as close as blue gets to straight-up hard removal, and while it does cost a lot of mana, it builds up your board state when you use it which keeps it from being tempo negative. If the format leans towards Siege Rhinos and the like, I don’t expect this to see much play, but in a format with Grim Flayers and Llanowar Elves, this could be a great sideboard consideration.
Pioneer is the format that makes black the king of killing creatures. With options all along the curve, all you have to do is find out what works best for your deck and make the necessary adjustments for these cards. Some are better than others, and I wouldn’t say that there is a one-size-fits-all removal spell for Pioneer like there is in Modern.
In a format without fetches, it was dubious as to whether Fatal Push would be able to make the cut in Pioneer. I was of the opinion that Fatal Push was at the same power level as Disfigure, and didn’t put much stock in the card, but as we have seen from the first 5-0 deck dump that featured 42/137 decks playing the card, it seems like Push is going to remain a format staple. Triggering revolt is obviously much more difficult, so I wouldn’t rely on this as your only removal spell, but if you throw in a few things like Field of Ruin or Fabled Passage, it’ll be easier to remove those Siege Rhinos when you need to.
Moving up the curve we get all the Doom Blade variants. It’s unclear as to whether Doom Blade, Ultimate Price, or Cast Down will be at the top of the heap, but expect one of these cards to see significant play in Pioneer. Near unconditional removal in a format filled with conditional removal is going to be very valuable, and these cards are the closest we can get for 2 mana. I would happily play these alongside Fatal Push to cover both the small creatures and the bigger ones.
Grasp of Darkness
I grouped this card away from the other 2 mana removal spells for a few reasons. First of all, BB obviously makes this card more restrictive, but -4/-4 is a lot. Most creatures in this format will trend at 4 toughness or less, and getting to cleanly kill cards like Hazoret is invaluable. In a deck with creatures, Grasp of Darkness can serve as a combat trick, and shrink an opposing Scarab God into lethal range.
This, along with Murderous Rider, serve as the catchall answers for black. Murder is not the best, but I will happily pay 3 mana to kill their Lyra Dawnbringer. And with how many powerful Planeswalkers have been printed recently, having an answer for them is important. Whether you play Downfall or Swift End is very dependent on your deck, but both are good options to consider when deckbuilding.
Is burn a problem? Apply the salve of Collective Brutality, and watch all of your concerns go away. Kill one of their prowess creatures, discard a burn spell, and gain 2 life, for the low, low cost of 2 mana and 2 cards. It’s no secret that this card is a house against burn, but against other decks, Brutality provides unparalleled flexibility. And if you can find a way to abuse the cards you discard, this card goes from great to excellent.
This card is a one-sided Sweltering Suns and will clean up a lot of different creature-based decks of the format. For a deck like Zombies, this card is a great option against all of the aggressive decks while leaving your deck unscathed. At 3 mana, this can also see play in decks that don’t need a one-sided board wipe, and just want an efficient answer to all the tribal decks. If -3/-3 isn’t cutting it for you, go one higher and play Languish.
As it turns out, making Murder a creature is pretty powerful. This 2 for 1 may not be much, but being a creature gives it a ton of upside that is otherwise not possible. Buy it back from the yard with reanimation/raise dead effects, keep their X/2’s from attacking, and swing for 2 at their Planeswalker. 4 mana is still a lot, and this might not see play, but it is an option to be aware of when deckbuilding.
Liliana, the Last Hope
X/1’s beware, Liliana is in this format and is absolutely devastating if you can’t play around her. Plussing to kill creatures is incredibly powerful, and she can still neuter most threats in the game. If your deck has a lot of creatures that die to Liliana, be prepared to have an answer to her or she will lock you out of the game.
You don’t need a Liliana for this card to be good. Instant speed edict is really nice to have, and against decks that play one big threat, especially one with hexproof or indestructible, this card is invaluable. Against swarm decks, this becomes much worse, but if know your opponent only has a few haymakers in their deck, this can end them very effectively.
If you aren’t playing any other delve spells, Murderous Cut is one of the most efficient removal spells in the format. Deal with any threat for as little as one mana at instant speed. It’s trivial to set up as well, with cards like Stitcher’s Supplier turning this into an immediate 2 mana destroy spell. However, the more delve spells you start to play, the worse this card gets, and if your opponent identifies your deck as one to bring in Rest in Peace, Murderous Cut loses a lot of its luster.
Arguably the best discard spell ever printed, Thoughtseize is format warping. Combo becomes much more difficult to play, and in a less efficient format, disrupting their curve becomes way more valuable. With aggro being as good as it is, Thoughtseize is held back from being format dominating, but this is still an extremely powerful card in blacks arsenal and should always be considered if you are playing swamps.
Lacking Lightning Bolt is a massive downside for red, but they still have plenty of other spells to make up for it. What this means is that creatures that possess 3 toughness are much more viable than they would otherwise be in Modern, as getting removed for 1 mana is much more difficult.
As many cube enthusiasts will tell you, being 2 mana does not make Lightning Strike unplayable. This card is still very efficient, being able to trade up with many different threats, and keeping your opponent honest with their life total as soon as they dip below 3. Lightning Strike is a versatile card that is never dead and will play a good enough Lightning Bolt impersonation to see play.
Many people will play Shock in their deck and not realize that a strictly better Shock exists. If they go to block with their pro-red creature, simply Wild Slash their face and let your swole swiftspear get rid of their pesky blocker. It’s not an amazing upgrade, but Shock is still a playable Magic card and works best at getting rid of cheap creatures, and is a spell for the decks that care about it.
For those who are playing the energy package, you get access to a synergistic removal spell that can change based on your needs. If all they have is a Llanowar Elves, blast it and get 2 free energy counters. If they have a much larger creature, spend as much energy as necessary to deal with it. And with a Bristling Hydra, you can also use this as a 2 mana way to get hexproof if you target the hydra, get the energy, and then spend it. Splashing red for this removal spell is probably worth it for any energy deck.
Artifacts and creatures are going to be staples of this format, and Abrade cleanly answers both threats in a tight package. This card is less valuable to the aggro decks that want to go face all the time, but for any other deck splashing Red, Abrade is a powerful tool that should not be unaccounted for.
3 damage not enough for you? Need to exile their creature so they never get it back? Lava Coil is a great option for any deck that needs to answer either of the above questions. Sorcery speed is concerning to its playability, but it is one of the most efficient removal spells of the format on par with Grasp of Darkness, and for that reason it is notable.
Is 4 damage still not enough for you?? If you’re ok with not exiling or hitting flyers, Roast is one of the most efficient removal spells available. Making this change allows you to hit cards like Siege Rhino, but dodges a lot of important flyers like Spell Queller and Gisela. Still, 5 damage is a lot and can clean up many different creatures.
Pyroclasm is not legal in this format, so the best we can do is 3 mana. Flame Sweep and Kozilek’s Return both provide instant speed Pyroclasms that can serve different purposes. If you need a way to deal with a bunch of weenies, these cards can provide very nice board wipes that can synergize well with your deck.
Anger of the Gods
If RR is not a problem for you, and you don’t need to synergize with Eldrazi or flyers, Anger of the Gods is one of the cleanest board wipes in the format. Exiling everything may prove to be important, and 3 damage kills most things in the format. A clean board wipe, and I’m happy it made it into the format.
Stoke the Flames
Free spells are great, and Stoke the Flames holds up this trend with flying colors. In a deck that has a few Rabblemasters, this card turns into an easy way to kill any opposing threats. 4 mana is also not beyond the realm of castability if you lose your board, and 4 damage is really good at keeping your opponent honest. Don’t sleep on this card moving forward.
Fiery Impulse is nearly Lightning Bolt for control decks, which gives a lot of reason for control decks to splash for red. In the early game, the difference between Bolt and Shock is not extremely noticeable, and in the late game, bolt can still clean up most things. Not targeting Planeswalkers is a problem, but doesn’t stop this card from being good.
Just like Blue, Green is not a color that is known for their removal. But in a format that has more artifacts and enchantments, green has a few tools up their sleeve that other colors don’t get access to. Green also has a surprising amount of ways to incidentally hate on the graveyard, so be prepared for that possibility when matched against a green deck.
Return to Nature
This is one of my favorite sideboard cards moving into the new format, and I don’t see enough people talking about this. Getting to hate on 3 different archetypes in one card is fantastic for a sideboard card, and while it may not do any job spectacularly, in an unknown format, having that versatility is important. I don’t know if it has a prolonged lifetime in sideboards, but I like it a lot right now.
This is the state of Green’s removal right now. It’s playable, but certainly not great. Just pray that your creature doesn’t get removed in response to this, and as long as you have something on board you’ll do fine. Hopefully, something better comes along for Green.
If you really need to fight something, Voracious Hydra is the card to do it. This doubles as a ramp wincon and removal, and with how powerful Nykthos decks are, having a little bit of interaction stapled to your wincon is very appealing. The rate is not the best when going for the fight option, but this is much more castable than Ulamog for the majority of the game.
Plummet is admittedly a pretty narrow effect, but when it’s attached to a 3/2 body I don’t mind it nearly as much. Even with Undergrowth 0, this still kills a lot of flyers in the format, and with only 2 creatures in the graveyard, this guy can rumble with the likes of Lyra. If decks like Spirits prove to be top contenders in the format, Kraul Harpooner will serve as a great maindeck option to beat them.
A favorite in Modern midrange decks, Scooze will be no different here. If your deck is good at killing lots of creatures, Scooze can serve as a wincon and incidental hate against any decks trying to do funky things with their graveyard. Grind them out, and use this friendly ooze to take over the game. The main thing to be aware of when adding this card to your deck, is that you need to lean pretty heavily green to make the most of it’s activated ability.
This ain’t Nature’s Claim, but it’ll hit many of the targets that you would bring Nature’s Claim against anyways. Unlike Fragmentize, however, not hitting artifacts and enchantments with cmc 4 or greater is a big concern. If you are playing a graveyard deck, and they play Leyline of the Void, this is a dead card. Likewise, as a removal spell, this doesn’t hit one of the most important artifacts of the format, Aetherworks Marvel. Time will tell if this card is better than Return to Nature, but at the moment it misses quite a lot of important cards.
Colorless doesn’t really have a true removal spell like Modern does with Dismember, but there are a lot of great sideboard options available in colorless that are worth talking about. And coincidentally, some of them say destroy on them so we can count that.
Ratchet Bomb is a card that is a colorless board wipe for only 2 mana. This card sees play in lots of Modern sideboards, and in a smaller format Ratchet Bomb should do well. I initially believed that Ratchet Bomb would be able to deal with Saheeli-Felidar combo, but as I learned the Felidar tokens keep their CMC which makes this card not as effective. Still, being able to clean up lots of different tokens, or crank it up each turn to threaten everything is a nice place to be.
For one mana you can stop a lot of things with this card. If you have good knowledge of the format, or at the very least, the deck you are up against, this card can shut off a lot of important magic cards. Just to name a few, it stops Saheeli, Oko, Teferi, Aetherworks Marvel, Walking Ballista, and Steel Overseer. As the meta develops even further, this card will shut off even more strategies. Phyrexian Revoker is another option, if you having a creature is more important, or if you want to see their hand Sorcerous Spyglass is pretty good as well.
Amulet of Safekeeping
Stop those cats, burn spells, and thoughtseizes for the low price of 2 mana. It’s a versatile card, but admittedly not incredibly powerful at what it does, but it does a lot of things for cheap. It’s going to need more testing as to whether it will be a good card, but it’s not something we should rule out just yet.
Being a land gives this a lot of power as it can slide into any deck that can afford a colorless land. This is a very easy way to get a destruction spell in your deck, that can blow up many different things. It trades being versatile with being expensive, so don’t expect to see this except in control decks or decks that can generate a ton of mana.
For one mana, Grafdigger shuts down a lot of different strategies. Pheonix, dredge, collected company, rally the ancestors, and chord of calling are all very powerful cards/strategies that are stonewalled for one mana. Expect to see this in many different sideboards moving forward, and be prepared to answer this card if your deck depends on any of the above strategies.
This is a true removal spell for colorless and does a lot of neat things for 2 mana. Stopping cat combo is one of the biggest draws to Warping Wail, although Spatial Contortion is another option that can kill bigger creatures. The main question as to whether these will see play or not is based on whether colorless matters decks become a thing moving forward.
I’m just going to start by saying that if you want powerful removal spells, you’ve come to the right place. Some of the most powerful removal spells in the entire history of magic have been printed in multicolor, and with 2 Ravnica blocks and Khans of Tarkir, there is a plethora of options to choose from. There is no way I’ll be able to cover everything, but I’ll do my best to talk about what is most important.
This card has enough Modern clout that I shouldn’t have to say too much in the defense of this card. It’s one of the best 2 for 1’s in the game, and will always be relevant. And with such an artifact heavy format, having a maindeck answer to them is always appreciated. Shocking their creature and destroying their Smuggler’s Copter is going to be a beating.
Knight of Autumn
It literally doesn’t matter what deck you are up against, this card can and will do everything. This is a great addition to the Collected Company decks and is a valuable tool for any Selesnya deck.
Drown in the Loch
In a format with such mediocre removal and counterspells, it’s incredible getting both terminate and counterspell on the same card. The condition of cards being in the graveyard does make this a lot worse without the presence of fetchlands, and the number of delve cards around, but I still anticipate this card to do extremely well and be a great draw for UB decks.
Need to deal with *almost* anything? Pay 3 mana and 3 life. It’s simple and direct and exiling it is really great in a format with delve and recursion. Of course, with the amount of aggro floating around, now might not be the best time for it.
Now, this is a card that can destroy anything. With Nykthos becoming such a huge player so quickly, having a clean answer to that is very nice. Combine this with the other great removal black has access to, and you are free to deal with almost any threat your opponent presents. Abrupt Decay is another great card to consider and does better if aggro is a bigger presence in your meta. Of course, there is nothing stopping you from playing both.
This combined with Sphinx’s Revelation is the reason UW Control is a viable deck. 4 mana wraths are hard to come by, and Supreme Verdict even comes with an upside. It’s simple, but effective, and I expect many of these to be cast in the lifetime of Pioneer.
All of these are very versatile removal spells, that can also do more. If you have the mana for any of these cards, you should probably be playing a copy or more.
Color Hate Cards
This is such a broad category that I simply decided to include Veil of Summer as the art, as it is one of the best color hosers ever printed. Simply put, sideboarding a few color hate cards is something I would recommend, as they are very powerful cards and removal spells in a format that doesn’t have much competing with them. A shortlist of cards includes Devout Decree, Aether Gust, Noxious Grasp, Fry, Veil of Summer, Shifting Ceratops, and Mystical Dispute.
On average, the removal in Pioneer seems to hover around 2 mana instead of one mana like it does in Modern. This means that playing larger creature spells is not as punishing, which pushes the format to be a little slower. One mana creatures that can do a lot are better than ever, as the removal has to trade down to effectively deal with them. That doesn’t mean that one mana removal is unplayable, it’s just a lot more scarce than it is in Modern. If there are any removal spells you feel I missed, please tell me about it in the comments below. For my next, and final article in this series, I will analyze the first decks of the format that are performing well, and discuss what kind of constraints they create.
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