This past week has been slow for me regarding Magic. I haven't enjoyed playing as much since I don't have any upcoming events. I went hard for the past few events and was reaching the point of burnout, so I’ve taken my foot off the gas and have enjoyed playing other games and spending time with my family this summer.
However, a new Pioneer deck has popped up, and I wanted to take it for a spin to maintain my firm grasp on the Pioneer format. At RC Dallas, cftsoc made waves with a new deck they designed focusing on the two-card combo of Archfiend of Dross and Metamorphic Alteration.
This deck has been invited on since their Grixis version, and I was drawn most to the Dimir-based version.
I’ve since seen the deck pop up in various challenge Top 8s, which solidifies that, at least in part, it's the real deal and can compete.
I was a huge Inverter fan, and this deck is an almost identical shell with a different combo.
Here’s the list I was running:
3 Archfiend of the Dross
4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
3 Chrome Host Seedshark
3 Metamorphic Alteration
1 Drown in the Loch
1 Heartless Act
4 Fatal Push
4 Dig Through Time
4 Watery Grave
2 Hive of the Eye Tyrant
1 Hall of Storm Giants
4 Clearwater Pathway
1 Takenuma, Abandoned Mire
1 Otawara, Soaring City
2 Fabled Passage
4 Darkslick Shores
1 Power Word Kill
1 Shipwreck Marsh
1 Sheoldred's Edict
1 Make Disappear
1 The Scarab God
2 Ray of Enfeeblement
1 Pithing Needle
2 Disdainful Stroke
2 Reckoner Bankbuster
2 Mystical Dispute
1 Unlicensed Hearse
It’s impossible to get a great grasp of a Pioneer deck without playing hundreds of matches because of the format's depth. For that reason, I’ll have to make some generalizations. I’ll start with what impressed me about the deck.
I liked that the fair plan was solid. The Chrome Host Seedhsarks were excellent in most of the fair match-ups. They weren't easy to kill, blocked well against decks like Mono W Aggro, and provided something the deck needs in midrange match-ups, which is a way to generate value.
Thoughtseize is potentially the best, or at least, the most important card in Pioneer at the moment. It solves tons of problems, allows you to interact with any deck in the format in a meaningful way, and goes nicely with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Jace is one of the key ways this deck can generate value and additional cards. Back in Inverter days, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries did a lot of the heavy lifting in this regard. Because we currently aren’t playing a card like that, I liked the full four copies of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.
The mana in this deck is vastly improved from Inverter days when I was playing Choked Estuary and Fetid Pools. The mana is smoother now, which used to be one of the weakest points of Inverter. That’s a big plus.
One of the last things I loved about this deck was that Archfiend was a better fair card than Inverter. It’s essentially a three-turn clock on its own because you can usually get a single trigger out of it along the way, and it also has more fair game support with Chrome Host Seedshark.
There are a few things that didn't impress me.
I didn't like the combo itself. It wasn't as clean as Inverter’s combo. You could set it up, but there were a ton of ways to meaningfully interact with the combo. Almost every game I won was on the back of how good my interaction was between Push and Thoughtseize, and it was less about what I was actually doing to win. This made Metamorphic Alteration a terrible draw in most games. I wouldn’t say Thassa’s Oracle was an all-star in the old Inverter deck, but it did something whereas Alteration is basically a blank. Even when you draw the Archfiend with it, it requires dancing around some stuff. For this reason, it's crucial for Duress and Thoughtseize to provide information on the opponent’s hand.
I didn't like how poor the options were for a transitional package against decks like control. You don’t want to try to combo against an all-instant speed, interactive, mostly creatureless deck. The sideboard doesn't have good options in those match-ups. The current plan is to use Jace, Duress effects and Counter to hopefully win on the back of Seedhark, but it’s too anemic. I’ve seen Hullbreaker Horror in this before, but the deck runs so few lands that it seems too expensive. The same would be true for Shark Typhoon. You’ll be missing land drops and that’s not the battle you want to fight in that case.
I considered trying Liliana of the Veil to supplement the Duress and Thoughtseize package, especially because this deck can function on fewer resources.
I didn't like that the engines were very poor. I ran out of gas in many games, which is unacceptable in today's era of Magic. You need to spend your mana productively or else you will get buried. You can get bailed out from this issue at times by putting the combo together to end the game immediately, but they’ll be able to interact in some way if you fall too far behind.
I won a lot more than lost with this deck, but that was because of factors outside of the combo. The combo came together some, but mostly I won with Sharks and Archfiends, which is a good thing. However, it makes me question if the combo is even worth playing or if Chrome Host Seedshark is better than it looks. It’s always impressed me in every deck, so maybe it's worth experimenting more.
Overall, the deck is solid, but I’d label it tier two. I wouldn't play it if I was going to an event this weekend. The deck needs a lot of tuning. While it’s likely good against linear decks that lack interaction, it feels like it will be weak against people trying to interact because its engines are much worse than the opposition. It’s harder to combo because it’s easy for them to break up by killing your Archfiend in response to a Metamorphosis or holding up a Boseiju.
I was impressed enough with the UB shell that I may experiment more by tuning it, working on the sideboard plans, or removing the combo for a better fair plan.
Regardless, if you’re like me, you may not have played with the deck and wondered about its strength. While it’s not top tier, it will likely be around for a bit, and I think the deck can shine in certain metagames. If you want to keep jamming the deck you’ve been playing, you can mostly ignore this deck's existence. If you’re looking for a project to work on in Pioneer and something new to learn and explore, this deck has some potential but likely involves a good transformational package that can remove the combo and sideboard into something more grindy and efficient.