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The Spiciest Pioneer Decks at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor

February 23, 2024
Frank Karsten

In total, 258 Pioneer decklists were submitted for Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, but some stand out more than others. The spiciest ones use innovative combinations of cards, represent a novel archetype, or do something that no one saw coming. In this article, we'll take a closer look at eight Pioneer decks that stood out to me the most. Most of them leverage new cards from Murders at Karlov Manor, and all stand a real chance at winning the Pro Tour.

Twelve players from Team CFB Ultimate Guard settled on an innovative deck based on an unexpected creature type: Vampires! After it became clear that No More Lies would see a lot of play, they considered several kindred decks to dodge the countermagic with Cavern of Souls, and Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl first explored a mono-black Vampire version. It seemed to match up well against all the top Pioneer archetypes, save for Amalia Combo, and most of the team came on board. While Rietzl ultimately stuck with his more aggressive mono-black list featuring Knight of the Ebon Legion, everyone else eventually splashed red for Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker.

636994 Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord 646668

At its core, Rakdos Vampires is pretty similar to Rakdos Midrange, featuring the familiar disruption suite of Fatal Push and Thoughtseize. However, it gains access to Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, which is arguably the best three-mana planeswalker in Pioneer. At least, when it's properly supported. The option to sacrifice Dusk Legion Zealot for a Lightning Helix effect has been available for years, but the rest of the supporting cast of Vampires was always a bit lackluster. This changed recently, as The Lost Caverns of Ixalan added Preacher of the Schism and Murders at Karlov Manor introduced Vein Ripper.

Vein Ripper is difficult to remove; in particular, Azorius Control decks have great trouble paying the ward cost. Vein Ripper provides a fast clock and wins damage races, even when it's cast for six mana. And its primary allure is when Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord puts Vein Ripper onto the battlefield on turn three, a combination that has been referred to as "Splinter Twin." Vein Ripper packs more of a punch than Champion of Dusk, and it's harder to remove than Ghalta and Mavren. Apart from minor disagreements on the mana base, Reid Duke, Luis Scott-Vargas, Brent Vos, Samuel Pardee, Matt Sperling, Sky Bauerschmidt Sweeney, Seth Manfield, Jim Davis, Arne Huschenbeth, Tommy Ashton, and Theodore Jung will all be unleashing basically the same Rakdos Vampire deck on the Pro Tour.

Zach Mandelblatt, who qualified via the $100K Limited Open at MagicCon: Las Vegas, is the only player in the tournament to register Prime Speaker Vannifar. The card is reminiscent of Birthing Pod, which is banned in Modern, making his Pioneer list one of the most spectacular decks in the room.

Prime Speaker Vannifar Corridor Monitor Hydroid Krasis

The deck's game plan revolves around transmogrifying Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic into a dominant board state. Sacrificing a mana Elf to Prime Speaker Vannifar allows you to put Corridor Monitor onto the battlefield, untapping Vannifar. Vannifar then turns Corridor Monitor into Bounding Krasis, which subsequently becomes Breaching Hippocamp, then Junji, the Midnight Sky. When Prime Speaker Vannifar sacrifices Junji, the Midnight Sky, you can return Bounding Krasis from the graveyard before putting Gruff Triplets from your library onto the battlefield. After Bounding Krasis untaps Vannifar for the final time, you can turn it into Thought-Knot Seer to secure the game. So, this chain started with a single mana Elf and eventually yields 13 power on the battlefield, plus disruption.

Although this Vannifar Combo deck does not use any new cards from Murders at Karlov Manor, it does make good use of Agatha's Soul Cauldron—a card that has proven itself in Modern but struggled to find a home in Pioneer. Perhaps Vannifar Combo is that home. Indeed, Prime Speaker Vannifar is a lightning rod for removal spells, but Agatha's Soul Cauldron can bestow its activated ability to any other creature. In fact, by discarding Prime Speaker Vannifar to Fauna Shaman, you can potentially grant its Birthing Pod-like ability to a mana Elf, sacrifice Fauna Shaman, and start the chain as early as turn three!

Indomitable Creativity decks are nothing new in Pioneer—indeed, Reid Duke won last year's Pioneer Pro Tour with Izzet Creativity—but the addition of white is quite novel. After Murders at Karlov Manor introduced Lightning Helix and No More Lies, eight players settled on Jeskai Creativity. While Sean Collins, Andrejs Prost, and Marco Vassallo are running 60-card versions without Omen of the Sea, Supreme Verdict, or Memory Deluge, the spiciest build came from team Sanctum of All. Five members of that team registered an awesome 80-card deck with Yorion, Sky Nomad.

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In essence, this is a control strategy, akin to an Azorius Control deck splashing for Lightning Helix. With a solid suite of spot removal, countermagic, card draw, sweepers, and planeswalkers, Sanctum of All's Jeskai Creativity deck will be able to survive the early turns before eventually taking over in the late game. The only difference is that the win condition—typically an afterthought in most control decks—is more prominent.

Jeskai Creativity can swing the tide of any game by targeting tokens from The Wandering Emperor, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, or Prismari Command with Indomitable Creativity, turning them into a guaranteed Atraxa, Grand Unifier. If a single Atraxa trigger isn't enough, you can get ultimate value by blinking her with the companion Yorion, Sky Nomad. After sideboard, Krenko's Buzzcrusher and Ovika, Enigma Goliath provide alternative bullets. With this combo-like finish, Abraham Stein, Jason Ye, Cain Rianhard, Piper Powell, and Anna Wegener will be able to win faster and more decisively than pure control players.

Jeff Lin, who qualified via MTG Arena, is the only player in the tournament to register Whir of Invention. By exploiting the improvise mechanic, which allows your artifacts to help cast your spells, his Pioneer list features a toolbox like no other.

Whir of Invention Novice Inspector 636733

The deck uses cards like Thraben Inspector, Portable Hole, and Prophetic Prism to flood the board with artifacts, turning Moonsnare Prototype into an effective ramp spell and Metallic Rebuke into a potent piece of interaction. Jeff Lin actually played a similar deck at last year's Pro Tour Phyrexia, where he finished 85th, but additions from recent sets have supercharged the strategy. Most notably, Clay-Fired Bricks from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan and Novice Inspector from Murders at Karlov Manor now provide a critical mass of early-game artifacts.

These additions facilitate Whir of Invention, which can fetch interactive artifacts like Dusk Rose Reliquary—no sacrifice needed—or Unlicensed Hearse to answer the opponent's plans. For X=4, which is easily doable on turn four, Whir of Invention can grab Thousand Moons Smithy, creating an enormous Gnome Soldier token. After transforming the legendary artifact, the resulting stream of ever-growing artifact creature tokens should win the game in short order.

One year ago, at Pro Tour Phyrexia, Gruul Vehicles was the third-most-played archetype. Since then, the metagame has changed, and the archetype faltered due to the rise of Izzet Phoenix, Azorius Control, and Amalia Combo, all of which are traditionally bad matchups. At Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, only one player registered Reckless Stormseeker and Lovestruck Beast. However, Hisamichi Yoshigoe has always had a unique view on the archetype, so if anyone can revive it, it's him.

Smuggler's Copter 503783 Stubborn Denial

The core strategies of Gruul Vehicles should be familiar to most Pioneer players. The dream is to ramp into a turn-two Reckless Stormseeker, which can grant haste to Esika's Chariot. An important new addition is the recently unbanned Smuggler's Copter, which fits the deck well. It's easily crewed by mana Elves, and it allows you to tap a stolen creature in response to the third chapter of The Akroan War.

The unique element in Yoshigoe's list is the inclusion of blue for Stubborn Denial. His list has enough four-power creatures to enable ferocious, and countering Treasure Cruise, The Wandering Emperor, or Collected Company for a single blue mana can shore up the bad matchups. Yoshigoe has previously put the blue splash to good use at Pro Tour Phyrexia, where he finished 81st, and at the Regional Championship in Japan, where he made the Top 8. Could his experience and familiarity with the deck bring him more success this weekend?

Among Azorius Control players, there is a never-ending debate on the optimal companion: Is it Yorion, Sky Nomad; is it Kaheera, the Orphanguard; or is an actual non-companion sideboard slot more valuable? But if you ask Sze-Hang Chan, then the right answer all along was Zirda, the Dawnwaker. He is the only Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor competitor to use Zirda, making his list the most unique take on Azorius Control in the field.

479753 535049 Castle Vantress

Compared to Kaheera, the Orphanguard, Zirda, the Dawnwaker has an extra point of toughness, allowing it to block a Fable of the Mirror-Breaker token and survive Bonecrusher Giant's stomping. More importantly, it reduces the cost of activated abilities on cards like The Celestus, Shark Typhoon, and Castle Vantress by two. It also reduces the activation cost of Field of Ruin or the Clue from Deduce to a single mana. The inclusion of Zirda comes at the cost of Temporary Lockdown, which does not satisfy the companion's requirement, but Sze-Hang Chan has four of them in the sideboard against aggro decks, where they are more important than a companion.

Besides Zirda, the Dawnwaker, Sze-Hang Chan's list has a lot of unique elements. Notably, he has no Supreme Verdict, Get Lost, or Memory Deluge main. Instead, he's the only player at the event to use Unwind, Topple the Statue, and Lay Down Arms, giving his list a distinctive feel. As wild as these card choices might seem, Sze-Hang Chan has the results to back them up: At the Regional Championship in China in June 2023, he finished second with a very similar Zirda list! I'm excited to see if it will hold up at the Pro Tour stage.

Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif, who qualified based on excellent results at 2023 Pro Tours, is the only player to register Dimir Control this weekend. Nassif enjoys control strategies, and he had more faith in Dimir than in Azorius.

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Black offers Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, which are more mana-efficient than any of the interaction in Azorius Control. Moreover, they rapidly fill the graveyard, making the deck a better Dig Through Time deck. Nassif is the only player to run Confounding Riddle, Undercity Sewers, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy at the Pro Tour, all of which help fill the graveyard for Dig Through Time and Cling to Dust.

Murders at Karlov Manor also introduced several new cards for Dimir Control, most notably Deadly Cover-Up. Deadly Cover-Up can sweep the board while exiling all opposing copies of Arclight Phoenix, which will provide a big edge against the most-played deck in the tournament. Although Nassif was hoping that Rakdos Midrange—his nightmare matchup—would be on a deeper downswing, he said that he still likes his chances.

Mono-Red Aggro has dominated Magic for approximately 30 years, so it might not seem particularly spicy at first glance. However, the build of Kazushige Shimamura—the only Mono-Red Aggro player at the Pro Tour—is truly unique.

646685 Goblin Chainwhirler Torbran, Thane of Red Fell

Traditionally, Mono-Red Aggro decks in Pioneer emphasize one-drops like Soul-Scar Mage and Monastery Swiftspear, supported by additional burn or pump spells. Indeed, it was with such a list that Kazushige Shimamura finished 12th at the Regional Championship in Japan, earning him the qualification for this Pro Tour. But in his updated list, none of those one-mana prowess creatures remain. In fact, his only one-drop is Kumano Faces Kakkazan. This is a Mono-Red Aggro deck with only four one-drops, which is almost unheard of.

Instead, Shimamura emphasizes a superior mid-game and late-game. His two drops feature newfangled additions like Smuggler's Copter and Fugitive Codebreaker that dig deeper into his deck, enabling him to assemble powerful combos more reliably. For example, the combination of Goblin Chainwhirler and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell sweeps all opposing three-toughness creatures, and Torbran also triples the damage output of Eidolon of the Great Revel and Rampaging Ferocidon. As a result, Shimamura's list is far more innovative than the name of his archetype might suggest.

In conclusion, if you were looking for a brand new Pioneer deck to try out, then give one of these eight decks a try! They might be the key to victory at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, and you may be able to see them in action on the livestream over the weekend.

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