Pioneer Format - Thoughts and Insights?

Hello again all! This is Psarketos; the site changes over the past few years seem to have eaten my old account information. Looking at Magic again for the first time in a while, I am wondering what perspectives you have on the Pioneer format. Does it have a strong long term future, or does it risk going the way of Brawl in terms of popularity? Is it popular in your area or with your play groups, or is there another format they generally would choose over it? Any insight into what groups or player types tend to get into Pioneer? Any general thoughts or opinions you have would also be welcome, just looking for some casual player perspective on what Pioneer is about and how it is seen right now. Added a theory deck to the Hall just now, the design of which got me thinking on all this. Thanks!


The Tentacled One
Welcome back. So, what happened with the site was that last year, an inactive Admin account was hacked, and in order to save the site, Ed had to restore it from a backed-up version. Unfortunately, this had the side effect of purging all private messages in our archives, the Rules Question Board, the Testing Board, the user accounts in the Admin group, and (relevant to your case) all user accounts that had not recently posted anything. Now that you're back, Spiderman might be able to get your identity linked back to your old posts, either under your old name or your new one.

I have some thoughts on the Pioneer format, which I'll elucidate later. I mean, I was going to do that now (for real), but I just saw the time. Gotta go! More later...
Last edited:


The Tentacled One
So, Pioneer. Where to begin?

I don't know what the future holds for the Pioneer format, but even to start explaining my speculation on that, I need to go through the place of the format in Magic's history. This touches on some topics I thought might make for good article material, but didn't properly develop. I'll try not to get too exhaustive with that in this thread, but some of it can't easily be skipped over. So this will be another of my overly garrulous posts. Sorry.

The most important aspect of the history of Magic, perhaps the definitive aspect of the history of Magic, is the history of different ways in which the game is played. Call them formats, variants, modes, types, metagames, or whatever. I don't really know what the best term is to use here, but I'll just go with "modes" because I'm trying to get at this in the broadest possible sense. Let's see...

Standard is a format, as we are all aware. It comes with certain deck construction rules, which are governed by Wizards of the Coast in a certain way. Now, let's say that we have a player named Harry Osborn. Harry plays Standard. He's on a team with his friends. He follows Standard tournament results online, reads tournament reports, examines successful decklists, and tests decks with his team. They practice playing different decks, and adjust sideboards to suit matchups they expect to find in upcoming tournaments. Harry is an unabashed grinder, attending as many tournaments as his schedule allows. He and his team have been at this for a while, so they have some idea of what to expect. They can anticipate what differences there will be in the competition at a small, local tournament compared to a larger regional tournament. If Harry travels to attend a distant tournament, he and his team might practice and prepare for the competition in a car or hotel room. This is how Harry Osborn experiences Standard.

Let's say that we have a second hypothetical player, whom we'll call Gwen Stacy. Gwen plays Standard. She doesn't really have a team and she doesn't pay much attention to online information about the format. Gwen doesn't usually buy singles and when she trades, it's mostly only within her small circle of friends. Her Standard decks aren't built to account for what's been shown to be successful in tournament results. Gwen doesn't "netdeck." She mostly plays with what she thinks is best out of the cards she opens in booster packs or trades for with friends who do the same. Gwen does play to win, but she starts out building decks based on a combination of what cards she has available and which one she thinks are cool. She doesn't do a lot of deck-testing and any conversation she has with her friends about how they can improve their decks is probably an afterthought, rather than something they do to prepare for a tournament. Gwen might attend some small tournaments, but would be unlikely to travel far, to coordinate with a team, or to work tournaments into her schedule as a priority above other things.

Harry and Gwen plainly play the same format: Standard. But they don't play the game in the same way, and their experiences of how Magic is played are going to diverge dramatically. So I'm choosing the term "mode" to capture that. There are lots of different ways that people play Magic, but not all of those are formalized. Even within a single format, there might be a whole lot of different gameplay modes. A mode could be hyper-specific or very general. The idea of a "Casual vs. Competitive" dichotomy might be one of the highest possible levels of modes. The environments at two different kitchen tables might be the lowest level of difference between modes. Probably the earliest ever split between two different gameplay modes was the distinction between ante games and non-ante games.

The amount of diversity across different gameplay modes is something that players and WotC both have a stake in, and there are pros and cons to both having more of this and having less of this...

  • Having more modes gives players more options to choose from. Someone who might not like certain modes can choose to play game in an entirely different mode instead.
  • Having more modes can prevent players from getting bored or fatigued with the game overall. If they get burned out with their favorite mode, they could shift to a different mode and still stay involved with the game as a whole.
  • Having more modes means more places for individual cards to have some gameplay value, which in turn gives them some collector's value. Players are more likely to collect cards if the cards themselves have some meaningful gameplay value in some mode or modes.
  • Having more modes means more niches for products tailored to different modes.
  • Having more modes for tournament gameplay can make the tournament circuit more interesting.
  • Having more modes can overwhelm game development if it tries to account for those modes. Cards that work well in one mode might be overpowered or simply unfeasible in another mode.
  • Having more modes can pull the attention of more players toward modes that don't sell many new cards.
  • Having more modes can create a kind of Balkanization effect that hampers the ease of gameplay between players from different backgrounds or parts of the world.
  • Having more modes makes it trickier to generate interest in flagship products, or to design products that appeal to everyone.
  • Having more modes makes it difficult for players to coordinate games within groups that don't have pre-established norms for which modes they play.
There isn't a way to have the good here and just take away the bad. At some point, depending on how many distinct modes people are operating under, you start not having too few ways for people to play the game or too many. And given all this, it seems perfectly understandable that there'd be some disagreement over how to strike this balance, both among the players and for WotC. And I think we've seen WotC struggle with where to set that balance. Because sure, they're in the business of selling products, but just how to go about that is a pretty deep issue. WotC want to make the game more approachable for new players, while retaining the interest of experienced players for the long term. They want players to collect cards and to value their collections because it emphasizes and reinforces the collectibility aspect of Magic, but they also want to promote one-and done gameplay modes like booster drafts, because it entices players to buy more packs. They want to encourage even relatively uninvested casual players to stick with the game because there are a lot of them and all those occasional little purchases add up to some really big numbers, but they also want to promote modes of gameplay that show off the rare cards from the newest sets because that emphasis helps sell more of those products. I'm convinced that within WotC, the ways to optimize the balance between these competing interests is a subject of some contention. Every official format and every new product release, really just about everything WotC does with the game at all, has been affected by this balancing act.

So Pioneer was conceived in this balancing act, but it was quite the latecomer. A lot led up to this...
  1. In 1996, WotC created the Classic-Restricted format. This provided a way for players to still use their old cards without the baggage of the (Vintage) Restricted List.
  2. Then in 1997, WotC created the Extended format, so players had a place where they could use their old cards, but not their old, old cards.
  3. In 2004, Classic-Restricted was replaced with Legacy.
  4. In 2008, the Extended rotation system was changed to tie it to the Standard rotation.
  5. Then in 2010 the Extended rotation system was changed again to dramatically shrink its pool.
  6. In 2011, WotC created Modern, so players had a place to use their old cards and their old, old cards, but not their old, old, old cards.
  7. In 2013, WotC retired Extended, so players now had a place to use their old, old, old cards (Legacy), a place to use their old, old cards (Modern), but not a place to just use their old cards.
Following the rise of Modern and the fall of Extended, the playerbase grew dramatically and print-runs of sets were much bigger than they'd been for most of Modern's history. WotC's reprints of Modern-legal cards failed to keep up with demand for them. This shortage caused price spikes and led to the creation of the unsanctioned Frontier format in Japan.

For most of the time while this was going on, there was a common perception among players that WotC was mainly interested in promoting Standard and Limited modes, and that they were uninterested or even actively hostile toward formats like Modern and Legacy because those formats didn't necessitate the purchasing of the latest sets. That players were increasingly becoming priced out of Modern was viewed as something WotC considered to be a good thing. But I think the truth is much more nuanced. WotC understand that they need a certain amount of diversity between gameplay modes, and formats like Modern and Extended have been tools to cultivate that.

In a totally naive theory, if WotC could get all players everywhere to exclusively play Limited modes, then they'd optimize their profits because players would have to keep buying new packs to play. But WotC have always known that this business model would never be achievable. It's better to make at least a little bit of money off a whole bunch of different player demographics than to cut most of them out of the equation and squeeze maximum profits out of what's left. While WotC has had to mull over how to strike the right balance, I can't really be sure where they think the balance should be struck, and how that diverges from how most of the players feel about it. What we can be sure of is that they aren't (yet) insane enough to try striking the balance all the way on the furthest possible extreme. They want at least enough diversity in modes that people keep playing the game and that even the players who primarily participate in the least profitable modes stick around to make some purchases.

By the way, some of these modes have required almost no investment by WotC and have yielded returns anyway. For instance, Vintage sees almost zero support from WotC, but it has stuck around for a long time and draws a certain level of interest to the game just by its nature. All WotC really need to do with Vintage is provide the bare minimum level of maintenance to keep the format alive and it's the players themselves who do the rest.

Even before the pandemic, I think WotC realized that they were hitting diminishing returns on their prioritization of Limited modes and Standard. While it would be easy to assume that both of those issues are connected and are a direct result of set design or something about the arrangement of the latest mainline products, I suspect that they're actually separate, and I suspect that WotC came to this same conclusion. Here's why.

The biggest leverage that Standard has to draw interest from players comes in two forms. Firstly, Standard has been the flagship competitive format for 20+ years, so it has momentum going for it on the tournament circuit. This is primarily of interest to tournament grinders and to prospective professional players. Secondly, Standard being a highly visible format with generally simple rules interactions and a small pool of only the latest sets makes it more accessible to new players. See the problem? With Standard, WotC is relying primarily on factors that draw interest from the most competitive players and the newest players, both to the same gameplay mode. But the middle was shrinking. It isn't feasible to support such a big format only based on drawing in the dedicated tournament grinders and the new players. You need the reservoir of established players to be deeper, and that reservoir was being depleted.

Limited modes are kind of weird when it comes to how people play them and what that means for product sales. WotC has tried to shift things around to adapt them over the years. They're still doing this: I just opened some Strixhaven packs that have little insert cards with descriptions of rules for special little Limited modes WotC made up. For instance, grabbing one at random, I'm seeing the rules for a single-player mode called "Dominarioes." The idea with this one is to open a booster pack and play an awkwardly modified version of the traditional matching game played with Dominoes, and to see how many cards you can connect according to these rules. But fundamentally, I think that WotC realized that they were hitting diminishing returns with getting players to crack packs for Limited modes because making Limited gameplay more enticing or appealing only keeps driving sales up so much before further efforts at this stop yielding results. I think that there's a sharp, bimodal distribution among the players on this one: there are Limited enthusiasts who use Limited games as their primary way of interacting with the game, and there's the much larger population of players who might dabble in Limited games, but primarily care about other modes. No amount of support for Limited gameplay by WotC is ever going to convert the majority (or even close) of those Constructed players to abandon their modes and embrace an all-Limited lifestyle. Having more Limited players is great for product sales, but at some point, of WotC bases all products around Limited, they're being wasteful. I think that around 2017 or 2018, they already realized they'd gone too far with pushing Limited at the expense of other modes, and they were experimenting with other approaches. Maybe earlier, maybe later. But I really think that it easily predates the pandemic.

And then there's Commander. WotC didn't create this format, but they did find ways to capitalize on its skyrocketing popularity. They'd go on to do this more (and still are), but one problem that they must have recognized was that Commander allowed cards from throughout Magic's history, like the "Eternal" formats. A culprit that some immediately jump on when it comes to this is the Reserved List, but in truth, Modern was and is experiencing the same problem. I think that the reasons WotC hasn't been more aggressive with reprints for Modern are somewhat complex, but the Reserved List isn't a factor in that case. The trouble remains: people are priced out. Brawl was one attempt to mitigate this issue. Masters sets were another. But none of it has been enough. I have no idea what options WotC considered when it came to Modern, but I can come up with some hypothetical ones right now...
  1. Leave it alone and let the Modern format approach a kind of cap. Modern would become akin to Legacy-Lite.
  2. Reprint cards more aggressively.
  3. Print new cards that make more of the older, rarer Modern-legal cards obsolete.
  4. Rotate Modern.
  5. Shut down support for Legacy, letting Modern take its place.
  6. Bring back Extended.
  7. Create a new, non-rotating format like Modern, but starting its card pool after the increased size of set print-runs, so it automatically becomes more accessible to most players.
They might have toyed with any or all of those ideas alongside other ideas I didn't list here, and there's some reason to believe that they actually did, to some extent, implement #2, #3, and #5. Obviously #7 became the preferred approach. So now we have Pioneer, where players get to use their old cards. We have Modern, where players get to use their old, old cards. And we have Legacy, where players get to use their old, old, old cards. By itself, this is an imperfect solution to the accessibility problem, and the point has been raised that this implies the creation of yet another non-rotating format in another decade or so, but WotC went with this anyway.

One really important factor, which I'm certainly not the first to point out, is just how big of a gulf there is in print-run sizes between the earlier Modern sets and the ones captured in the Pioneer card pool. I don't believe that exact numbers have been disclosed, but I do remember how dramatically the population of the card Thoughtseize in tournament decks increased when Theros added to that supply instead of the card being exclusive to Lorwyn. While the players can't be sure just how much print-runs climbed over the years, WotC does have access to those numbers, and I'd bet that they planned Pioneer card pool with that in mind.


The Tentacled One
Pioneer has other advantages. WotC can release products like Modern Horizons, adding cards to Modern without worrying about balancing those cards for Pioneer or for Standard, and they can do stuff like Time Spiral Remastered without affecting Pioneer. Pioneer also started with the Khans of Tarkir fetchlands (reprinted from Onslaught) banned, so in one fell swoop they've dealt with one of the most pesky gameplay issues that has plagued other formats.

One role for Modern was to provide a home to experienced players for them to "graduate" into if they got bored with Standard. But it became too expensive for that! Pioneer isn't necessarily immune to this problem, and if nothing else changes, players will eventually get priced out of Pioneer too. But let's not overstate the problem. Print-runs for Pioneer-legal sets appear to be much larger than for older Modern-legal sets, and WotC can address reprints with something of a head-start, whereas with Modern they were playing catch-up almost from the moment they created the format. Pioneer is also a slower, less intimidating format than Modern has ever been. For most of its history, Modern has probably been more egregious for a combo-centric metagame than Legacy ever was, and much Modern gameplay involved two decks racing one another for blazingly fast kills. Combo isn't especially strong in Pioneer and banning a few cards has held it in check easily enough.

I was a bit surprised at how quickly Magic players in my area embraced Pioneer on its initial launch, especially with how poorly Brawl fared when WotC tried to roll that one out. It appears that there was a ton of interest in a cheap Constructed format with a larger card pool than Standard, but without the depth and messy issues complicating Modern. Pioneer was just what a lot of folks were looking for. At the time, I had no real interest in it myself, and scoffed at Pioneer as Modern-Lite. But I was vastly outnumbered in my lack of enthusiasm.

From my perspective, Pioneer took off and just kept on taking off, then hit a wall with the pandemic. The format isn't available on Arena and MTGO had been the place where Legacy and Modern had retreated when pushed out of the tabletop space by Pioneer. But on MTGO, Pioneer didn't really have advantages over Modern and Legacy, so there wasn't really a space for it. Pioneer seems to be weathering the pandemic, although it took a hit. So once stuff opens up more, we'll see if Pioneer gets its thunder back. I think that Pioneer has a whole lot of potential, but it didn't get enough time to really dominate the tabletop gaming space, and was at a disadvantage with the pandemic. I suspect that it will make a comeback this year, and from what I've been seeing online lately, most Magic sites and merchants are presuming that it will and are planning accordingly.

Finally, although this is totally personal and not relevant to the broader issues, but one thing that warmed me up to Pioneer somewhat was that my old friend, Nick (former CPA member Al0ysiusHWWW) got into Pioneer and was testing an Izzet Phoenix deck. So I agreed to play Pioneer with him (we never actually got around to it, but the pandemic was probably the main reason there). I had planned to build an Ascendancy deck, since I'd had fun with that back in 2015.
Thanks Oversoul! The timeline you presented gives some really interesting and informative context, makes me excited to see if Magic maintains its momentum and what that might bring about for the early 2030s, based on those patterns. Your personal insight on popularity is really helpful as well and matches what I have heard anecdotally in this area, including that Brawl seems to have flopped pretty hard without being entirely forgotten. As someone who has never been a fan of the commander concept (definitely seem in a minority there), Brawl staying niche does not impact me, and I am happy that the community as a whole continues to enjoy Commander. Will keep an eye on Pioneer as we get back to some semblance of life before the pandemic in the coming months.
Last edited: