Searching for Emrakul in Pioneer

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By Byron King
@DoneTheMath
 
After the Pioneer announcement, there were a million decks to try.  Due to the open nature of the formant, there wasn’t a reason to try decks of a personal interest provided they seemed strong.  The first thing I wanted to do was look at the most busted cards in the format.  There are a total of eleven cards that were banned in Standard that are legal in Pioneer.  Those cards are
Emrakul, the Promised End
Reflector Mage
Smuggler’s Copter
Felidar Guardian
Aetherworks Marvel
Attune with Aether
Rogue Refiner
Ramunap Ruins
Rampaging Ferocidon
Nexus of Fate (Arena best of 1 games)
Field of the Dead

These certainly aren’t the only strong cards in Pioneer, but it’s a good list to start with.  At this point, we can divide those cards into a handful of clear categories.

 

Emrakul, the Promised End, Nexus of Fate, Field of the Dead – Finisher cards that are difficult to interact with.

Felidar Guardian – two card combo with Saheeli Rai for an instant win.

Aetherworks Marvel, Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner – Energy package

Smuggler’s Copter and Ramunap Ruins – Boosted power levels of aggressive decks without any cost for deckbuilding

Reflector Mage and Rampaging Ferocidon – Cards banned to prevent future issues with other ban announcement

 

Looking at that list of banned cards, I’ve got a clear favorite.  If you’re looking to feel things in a game of Magic, Emrakul is the card for you.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun playing a game of Magic than when I’m playing my opponent’s deck for them.  Particularly when I get to do it as badly as possible.

Once I knew I wanted to work on Emrakul, I started brewing.  I had a shell worked out before I saw this list from VTCLA on twitter.

VTCLA decklist
3 Elvish Mystic
2 Llanowar Elves
4 Emrakul, the Promised End
4 Rogue Refiner
4 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
3 Assassin’s Trophy
4 Woodreaver’s Puzzleknot
4 Aetherworks Marvel
3 Smuggler’s Copter
4 Attune with Aether
3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
4 Aether Hub
4 Botanical Sanctum
3 Blooming Marsh
1 Breeding Pool
3 Watery Grave
1 Forest
2 Island
2 Overgrown Tomb
2 Swamp

There are a lot of things I wanted to try in this list, so I sleeved it up and got some games in.  I learned a lot in only a few games.  The first and most obvious lesson I learned is that this deck is trash, and there are several reasons for this.

First of all, the Energy mechanic is not nearly as powerful as it was in Standard.  When Energy was running rampant and needed multiple bans, it was the strongest mechanic available in a format with no answers.  Pioneer adds five more years worth of Magic cards, and five more years worth of answers.  Most importantly, there aren’t any other cards that positively interact with Energy in Pioneer.  That means you’re showing up with a really pointy knife to the gun fight that is Pioneer.  Everyone else gets upgrades and your deck isn’t any different.

The VTCLA decklist that I worked with attempted to get around this.  Emry to rebuy Woodreaver’s Puzzle Knot and Aetherworks Marvel was great in theory and fragile in practice.  Emry routinely cost 2.5 mana, and it’s not an impressive card when it never comes down for one mana.  Oko was fine, but it works better when you’ve got other reactive cards to back it up.  It was mostly included on power level, but it’s slow at generating Elks for you and can’t interact with opposing Elks particularly well.

Speaking of Oko, Thief of Crowns, that card is absurdly good against Aetherworks Marvel.  It’s pretty much impossible to activate Aetherworks Marvel before turn four, and difficult before turn five.  That gives Oko plenty of time to turn Marvel into an Elk if Marvel can’t immediately activate.  If Marvel activates and hits Emrakul, the Emrakul turns into a very resource expensive legendary Elk.  The best possible outcome is hitting Ulamog that can mana screw an opponent so the Oko can’t ever come into play.

The list I was working on didn’t even run Ulamog, which lead to another small issue.  Aetherworks Marvel requires a ton of work to use, and the deck only has four great hits.  Doing a ton of work to spin Marvel for a Rogue Refiner is an awful feeling.  This can be fixed with more Ulamogs, but that means the deck has more dead draws.  Ishkana, Grafwidow is a threat that could still be cast, but there are a lot of decks in Pioneer that just don’t care about it.  It’s perfectly reasonable against aggro decks, and it’s fine against Sultai midrange.  It just happens to be awful against hard control and devotion.  Lastly, the deck doesn’t even establish Delerium well without Emry, Lurker of the Loch.

The final, immediately apparent issue was that this deck utilizes Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic to ramp and activate Smuggler’s Copter.  Mono green Nykthos was the clear frontrunner in the format, meaning that everyone was prepared to deal with mana elves.  The Marvel deck suffers from incidental hate for almost every part of the deck, and this focus against the devotion deck means that no part of the Marvel deck is safe.

Magic Online results support my initial findings.  Aetherworks Marvel has failed to make a single appearance in any of the PTQ events, and I think it hasn’t made an appearance in the Online League deck dump beyond the first one with 137 different decks.

 

While I was doing this testing, Pioneer wasn’t stagnate.  Sultai control won the first PTQ, and Archlight Phoenix backed by Treasure Cruise showed significant promise.  Most importantly, the Green Devotion deck I mentioned earlier showed up with a bang.  The first ban announcement also came out

 

Felidar Guardian was an incredibly easy guess.  The combo that it enables puts a chokehold on the format without really adding anything of value.  Leyline of Abundance does some incredibly broken things in the devotion deck, enabling turn two Nissa, Who Shakes the World.  Oath of Nissa was more questionable, but devotion probably needed to lose something else.  I would have preferred Once Upon a Time to go, but Oath of Nissa makes decks full of cheap, value planeswalkers difficult to build.

 

Turning back to Emrakul, it was clear that Aetherworks Marvel wasn’t the correct base.  Others had better success than I did though.

4 Arboreal Grazer
4 Elvish Reclaimer
2 Golos, Tireless Pilgrim
1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
1 Emrakul, the Promised End
4 Walking Ballista
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Nissa’s Pilgrimage
4 Hour of Promise
4 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
2 Blast Zone
1 Cascading Cataracts
4 Castle Garenbrig
2 Desert of the Indomitable
1 Field of Ruin
2 Field of the Dead
6 Forest
3 Hashep Oasis
1 Radiant Fountain
2 Sanctum of Ugin
1 Scavenger Grounds
3 Shirne of the Forsaken Gods

 

This clearly isn’t an Emrakul deck, but it does have access to it.  Sanctum of Ugin makes it possible to find Emrakul, the Promised End and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, particularly with a set of Ugin, the Spirit Dragons to trigger it.

Unfortunately, this deck is morphing in ways that don’t favor Emrakul.  A green stompy deck is emerging as a Pioneer contender, and it splashes blue specifically for Oko, Thief of Crowns and Stubborn Denial.  Newer versions of this deck play a second Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or splash red for Dragonlord Atarka.  These changes keep this green ramp deck relevant, but I’m hunting for an Emrakul, the Promised End deck.

I haven’t touched on the Green Devotion deck for Emrakul, but it almost never plays it.  Vivien, Arkbow Ranger allows for silver bullets in the sideboard, but Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger typically takes up that sideboard slot.  I don’t actually think I’ve seen a devotion deck with Emrakul in the sideboard yet.

Lastly, I haven’t touched on a Sultai or Golgari deck that plays Emrakul fairly.  Simply put, I don’t think those decks are any good.  Sultai has a ton of good options already, and most of its best cards don’t revolve around the Traverse the Ulvenwald package.  The best Sultai decks are more planeswaker and spell focused, similar to the one that won the first Pioneer Challenge.

4 Gilded Goose
4 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
2 Courser of Kruphis
1 Tireless Tracker
4 Thoughtseize
4 Fatal Push
4 Abrupt Decay
1 Assassin’s Trophy
2 Drown in the Loch
3 Liliana, the Last Hope
3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
2 Vraska, Golgari Queen
2 Dig Through Time
4 Blooming Marsh
2 Botanical Sanctum
2 Breeding Pool
4 Fabled Passage
2 Forest
2 Island
4 Overgrown Tomb
2 Swamp
2 Watery Grave

Trying to fit Traverse the Ulvenwald into this deck is an exercise in cutting good cards for bad cards.  Beyond that, there is a lot of strain on the graveyard between Emrakul, the Promised End and Dig Through Time.

This is just a solid midrange deck.  Liliana is a little out of place here, but rebuying Jace with the minus ability is strong.  Drown in the Loch is excellent, though it struggles against opponents that are using Delve spells.  Overall, I really like what this deck is doing, provided it doesn’t have to play against Green Devotion or ramp.

Straight Golgari avoids the problem of cutting good cards for a Traverse package by simply playing worse cards than the Sultai version.  Those decks are often built around Grim Flayer, and they can realistically trigger Traverse the Ulvenwald.  I’m just not sure who that deck is good against.

At this point, I think it’s time to put Emrakul down for a while.  If control starts to emerge as a potential answer for the devotion decks, The ramp deck seems like a great way to counter it.  Otherwise, we will have to wait to see how thing settle before coming back to Emrakul.

 

Since I’m shelving Emrakul for the moment, it’s time to find a different deck to work on.  Currently,  I’m taking a crack at the deck that won the most recent PTQ.

4 Bloodsoaked Champion
1 Gutterbones
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
4 Murderous Rider
4 Night Market Lookout
3 Rankle, Master of Pranks
4 Scrapheap Scrounter
4 Thoughtseize
4 Fatal Push
4 Smuggler’s Copter
15 Swamp
4 Castle Locthwain
4 Mutavault
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

 

I wanted to make a joke about enjoying Standard Vampires in an era when the didn’t ban cards, but that would have been the format when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned.

This deck is preying on the lack of sweepers and fliers in the format.  Cheap creatuers backed up by Thoughtseize is a great way to punish opponents, and Smuggler’s Copter helps smooth out the draws.  Rankle and Murderous Rider help control larger creatures and planeswalkers, and there is a surprising amount of utility available in the manabase.  Castle Locthwain is ridiculous, providing a stream of cards in the late game with barely any drawbacks when curving out.

Beyond this generic black aggro deck, there is a mono black Vampire deck in the format.

4 Champion of Dusk
2 Drana, Liberator of Malikar
4 Gifted Aetherborn
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
2 Stromkirk Condemned
4 Thoughtseize
4 Fatal Push
2 Cast Down
4 Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord
4 Castle Locthwain
4 Mutavault
2 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
12 Swamp
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

This deck trades the aggressive nature of the previous deck for an endgame built around Gray Merchant of Asphodel.  It also has Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord to turbo out Champion of Dusk.

This deck has a lot more variance than I care for in my aggressive decks.  There are plenty of good cards for a more traditional Black Devotion deck, but Drana, Liberator of Malakir and Stromkirk Condemned are not great cards.  Champion of Dusk will just rot in hand unless Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord comes down on time.  Overall, this feels like a Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord deck that used Gray Merchant of Asphodel to fill out the last slots.  It’s a strong enough card to justify building around, but I’d rather start with a deck that has higher overall card power without Sorin.

 

I haven’t gotten enough games under my belt to get a good feel for this deck.  I’ll be back to report on it later, provided they don’t ban Smuggler’s Copter out from under me.  If that doesn’t happen, expect to see me turning Bloodsoaked Champion sideways for quite a while.

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