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Metagame Mentor: Pioneer Picks from Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor

March 07, 2024
Frank Karsten

Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor didn't disappoint. The first major event of 2024 featured a stacked Top 8 with some of the game's greatest players, a seven-game semifinals, and breakout Pioneer decks. When the best players in the world put Magic through its paces, it's always a great show. Indeed, the finals was a matchup between Boros Heroic and Rakdos Vampires—two completely unexpected strategies—with Seth Manfield ultimately ripping the trophy.

Congratulations to Seth Manfield, the Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor Champion!

While the Pro Tour rewarded performance in both Limited and Pioneer, today's article will consider the win rates and standout decks from the Pioneer rounds only. By removing the draft portion and looking beyond the Top 8, we'll get a better sense of the biggest Pioneer lessons from the event overall. This is particularly important because Pioneer will be the designated Constructed format for the next RCQ cycle, which starts on April 20. Let's run the numbers!

The Pioneer Win Rates at the Pro Tour

The most popular Pioneer deck archetypes as per the Pro Tour metagame breakdown were Izzet Phoenix, Azorius Control, and Rakdos Midrange, but there was also plenty of spice. In the table below, you can find the non-mirror, non-draw, non-bye match record and win rate of every archetype in the Pioneer Swiss rounds. Each archetype name hyperlinks to a representative decklist.

Archetype Number of Players Record and Win Rate
Dimir Control 1 8-2 (80.0%)
Boros Burn 1 7-3 (70.0%)
Quintorius Combo 2 13-7 (65.0%)
Rakdos Vampires 11 59-39 (60.2%)
Jeskai Control 1 6-4 (60.0%)
Izzet Phoenix 46 169-125 (57.5%)
Amalia Combo 17 76-60 (55.9%)
Boros Convoke 11 45-36 (55.6%)
Enigmatic Fires 4 19-16 (54.3%)
Boros Heroic 12 44-38 (53.7%)
Abzan Greasefang 4 16-14 (53.3%)
Rakdos Sacrifice 5 20-20 (50.0%)
Mono-Black Vampires 1 5-5 (50.0%)
Azorius Control 36 109-122 (47.2%)
Waste Not 2 7-8 (46.7%)
Omnath to Light 4 13-15 (46.4%)
Lotus Field Combo 23 71-83 (46.1%)
Izzet Ensoul 11 36-43 (45.6%)
Jeskai Creativity 8 30-36 (45.5%)
Mono-Black Midrange 1 4-5 (44.4%)
Niv to Light 7 15-19 (44.1%)
Mono-White Humans 1 3-4 (42.9%)
Rakdos Midrange 36 95-133 (41.7%)
Temur Vehicles 1 2-3 (40.0%)
Azorius Spirits 1 2-3 (40.0%)
Vannifar Combo 1 4-6 (40.0%)
Mono-Red Aggro 1 3-6 (33.3%)
Rona Lukka Combo 1 1-2 (33.3%)
Izzet Creativity 3 5-13 (27.8%)
Grixis Phoenix 2 3-10 (23.1%)
Azorius Improvise 1 2-7 (22.2%)
Orzhov Humans 2 0-5 (0.0%)

Although sample sizes were relatively small, Izzet Phoenix had an astounding win rate. Its 95% confidence interval ranged from 51.6% to 63.2%, indicating a very strong performance for the most-played deck in the field. In today's Pioneer metagame, the numbers suggest that Izzet Phoenix, Rakdos Vampires, and Amalia Combo will be the top-tier decks to defeat.

Other popular decks underperformed in the Pro Tour metagame. In particular, Rakdos Midrange and Azorius Control struggled against Izzet Phoenix at the highest level of competition, leading to disappointing results overall.

For some of the archetypes with middling results, it can be insightful to distinguish specific versions. For example, the four Izzet Ensoul players who incorporated Gleaming Geardrake and/or Case of the Filched Falcon went a combined 11-20 in the Pioneer rounds. By contrast, the seven Izzet Ensoul players who used Gleeful Demolition and Reckless Bushwhacker instead of the new Murders at Karlov Manor cards went 25-23. So the new cards were a flop, but stock Izzet Ensoul remains viable.

Likewise, the novel Jeskai Creativity deck did much better with Yorion, Sky Nomad. The five players from team Sanctum of All who brought a 80-card version went 18-18 in total. This was superior to the other three Jeskai Creativity players, who posted a combined 12-18 record with 60-card versions. So even though the archetype had a mediocre result overall, the best version was still promising.

The Pioneer Decks and Players with 7+ Wins

As a reference, here are all decks with at least 7 Pioneer non-bye wins at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, along with their combined non-bye Swiss and Top 8 record, in descending order of their win rate:

In the remainder of this article, I'll take a closer look at standout decks from this group, along with the lessons to draw from their performance. Before reviewing these decks, however, I want to highlight an individual finish for the record books.

Against all odds and historical patterns, both the reigning Magic World Champion and the recipient of last year's Player of the Year award reached the Top 8, as Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and Simon Nielsen showcased their ongoing dominance. For Simon Nielsen, who previously made Top 8 at Pro Tour March of the Machine, Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings, and Magic World Championship XXIX, his fourth consecutive Top Finish set a new all-time record!

Previously, only four players had finished in the Top 8 of three consecutive Pro Tour or World Championship events: Scott Johns (Pro Tour Los Angeles 1996, Pro Tour Columbus 1996, Worlds 1996), Jon Finkel (Pro Tour New York 1998, Worlds 1998, Pro Tour Chicago 1998), Luis Scott-Vargas (Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, all held in 2016), and most recently Nathan Steuer (Magic World Championship XXVIII, Pro Tour Phyrexia, and Pro Tour March of the Machine). These incredible historical feats are now eclipsed by Simon Nielsen's ongoing quadruple run. Maybe he'll even improve it at the next Pro Tour!

Rakdos Vampires Ripped into Pioneer

This is the deck that took first place. Seth Manfield, the 2015 World Champion and Pro Tour Ixalan champion, added yet another trophy to his collection. As a result, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker has won all four Pro Tours since the return of the tournament series in 2023!

Eleven players from Team CFB Ultimate Guard settled on this innovative new deck, which broke the format with a dominant performance. Seth Manfield and Sam Pardee made the Top 8, and Rakdos Vampires clinched a 60.2% win rate during the Swiss—the best out of all Pioneer archetypes with more than two pilots. Although many of his team members used 4 Dusk Legion Zealot, Seth Manfield shaved two of them, opting for an extra Duress and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse in the main deck instead.

At its core, Rakdos Vampires is pretty similar to Rakdos Midrange, featuring the familiar disruption suite of Fatal Push and Thoughtseize. However, the true power is the Vampire theme, which is headlined by Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord. Sorin has the tremendous upside of slamming Vein Ripper onto the battlefield as early as turn three, which packs quite a punch. Given that Rakdos Midrange had an abysmal 41.7% win rate, I would not be surprised to see Rakdos Vampires supplant Rakdos Midrange going forward. We're already seeing this trend on Magic Online.

As Pioneer players come to grips with the power of Vein Ripper, there's a frantic scramble for ways to defeat it. One way is to look for answers that dodge the ward ability, such as Pick Your Poison, Tears of Valakut, Void Rend, Crackling Doom, Soul Shatter, or Blot Out. As a spicy alternative, Katilda, Dawnhart Martyr has protection from Vampires, so Azorius Spirits is already having a resurgence on Magic Online. And based on their in-house testing, Amalia Combo is a bad matchup for Rakdos Vampires.

The Izzet Phoenix All-Star is Ashiok

Izzet Phoenix had an amazing 57.5% win rate at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, even though cards like Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace were fairly popular across sideboards. The plan of dodging graveyard hate with Young Pyromancer or Crackling Drake worked well.

While Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and Adam Edelson made the Top 8 with "stock" Izzet Phoenix lists, the best-performing version was the one registered by Team Handshake. The seven Izzet Phoenix players on their team posted a combined 42-21 (66.7%) record, with Javier Dominguez adding another ninth-place finish to his resume.

643107 Treasure Cruise Ashiok, Dream Render

Handshake's innovation was to add main deck Ashiok, Dream Render. The planeswalker fills your own graveyard, exiles your opponent's, and prevents search effects like Emergent Ultimatum, Archdruid's Charm, or Chord of Calling. It's particularly effective against Lotus Field Combo, swinging the previously unfavorable matchup. Although the Ashiok innovation is easy to overlook because it did not make the Top 8, it excelled during the Pioneer rounds, and I expect that this will become the standard version of Izzet Phoenix going forward.

Amalia Combo is Better with Fauna Shaman

Amalia Combo posted an excellent 55.9% winrate overall. It was weak to Azorius Control, but it seemed to have a slightly favorable matchup against Izzet Phoenix. Out of all Amalia Combo lists, Team Handshake's version, which Christoffer Larsen piloted to the Top 8, stood out in particular. The combined Pioneer record of Eli Kassis, Karl Sarap, and Christoffer Larsen was 18-8 (69.2%), indicating that their build with Fauna Shaman was great.

583763 Amalia Benavides Aguirre Wildgrowth Walker

The unique element of Handshake's list is that it runs 3 Fauna Shaman, but only 2 Collected Company. Eli Kassis, who finished in 17th place with the list, explained that he wanted to streamline the deck as a combo deck as much as possible. He determined that losing games typically were from a lack of seeing Amalia, and Fauna Shaman does a better job at finding the desired combo piece. This was deemed to be more important than the potential card advantage provided by Collected Company.

We also learned during the Top 8 that Boros Heroic players can force a draw against Amalia Combo, either by pumping a 19-power Amalia with Monstrous Rage or by giving Wildgrowth Walker indestructible with Loran's Escape. This resulted in a legendary seven-game semifinals between Christoffer Larsen and Simon Nielsen. Nevertheless, the spicy singleton Scattered Groves in Handshake's build does make it possible to break the everlasting loop, as long as it is drawn before revealing an answer to your own Amalia.

Zirda is the Best Companion for Azorius Control

Among Azorius Control players, there is a never-ending debate on the optimal companion. In Chicago, counting both the Pro Tour and the Second Chance PTQ, companionless variants went 55-79 (41.0%), Kaheera versions went 28-39 (41.8%), and Yorion versions went 71-85 (45.5%). But the best result overall was posted by the single player who used Zirda, the Dawnwaker: 7-2-1 (77.8%)! None of the other 35 Azorius Control players had a better Pioneer record.

479753 535049 Castle Vantress

Sze-Hang Chan, who previously finished second at a Regional Championship in China with a similar Zirda build, impressed with his take on the archetype. The inclusion of Zirda comes at the cost of Temporary Lockdown, which moved to the sideboard, but Zirda reduces the cost of activated abilities from The Celestus, Shark Typhoon, Castle Vantress, Field of Ruin, or the Clue from Deduce. Uniquely, Sze-Hang Chan's list also has no Supreme Verdict, Get Lost, or Memory Deluge in the main deck; instead, it uses Unwind, Topple the Statue, and Lay Down Arms. Due to its excellent result at the Pro Tour, this unusual build may be the best way forward for Azorius Control.

Dimir Control Dominated

Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif had access to his team's Rakdos Vampires deck, but he stuck with his preference for control strategies. As the only player to register Dimir Control in the Pro Tour, he went 8-2 in the Pioneer rounds, securing the best result of any archetype. Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are more mana-efficient than Azorius Control's interaction, and they rapidly fill the graveyard for Dig Through Time.

646641 646614 646824

Murders at Karlov Manor also introduced several new cards for Dimir Control, most notably Deadly Cover-Up. It's easy to collect evidence; for example, cycling a single Shark Typhoon already gets you there. Deadly Cover-Up can sweep the board while exiling all opposing copies of Arclight Phoenix or Amalia Benavides Aguirre, providing a big edge against decks that rely on a specific creature card.

Burn Decks Heat Up Again

Inspired by the addition of Lightning Helix to Pioneer, Hall of Famer Ben Stark put the Murders at Karlov Manor card to good use, posting a 7-3 record as the only player to run Boros Burn at the Pro Tour.

Monastery Swiftspear 646773 Boros Charm

With the white splash, this Pioneer deck feels like the Modern version of the archetype. It's a straightforward strategy that tries to emblaze the opponent with 20 points of burn, making it a relatively easy deck to pick up and play for players who are new to Pioneer. While I appreciate the potential, Boros Burn might not be ideally positioned in the metagame if Rakdos Vampires keeps ticking up. Ben Stark lost the matchup twice in the Swiss, as the life-draining abilities of Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord and Vein Ripper are hard to overcome. Nevertheless, Boros Burn did well against the rest of the field, so the deck is back on the menu in Pioneer!

Looking Ahead

Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor was an awesome event. A brilliant new deck emerged victorious, innovative card choices found success, and sweet offbeat decks performed well. It's hard to ask for more, and it will be exciting to see the Pioneer format in action at the next RCQ cycle, which will begin on April 20, 2024 and will run until July 21, 2024.

The next stop for many members of CFB Ultimate Guard, Handshake, and other top qualified players will be Pro Tour Thunder Junction. This event will be held in Seattle on April 26–28, using the Standard format. Pro Tour Thunder Junction is fed by the current cycle of Modern Regional Championships, which concludes this weekend with championships in Australia and New Zealand, China, South East Asia, Chinese Taipei, and South America. I'll be back next week to analyze the latest Modern developments!

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