Data Analysis: How Close Is Pioneer on Arena?


The difference between Pioneer and MTG Arena's Explorer format is thousands of cards. But how many of those actually see play and play a relevant role in the Pioneer metagame? It's not as many as you might think. We could get there quickly—if only Wizards started the process!


It's been eleven weeks, almost three months, since Wizards appeased a community up in arms with their announcement of Pioneer coming to Arena. If we wanted to be a little mean, we could also say it's been 32 months, as this wasn't the first time we got this promise. The earliest statement on working toward Pioneer I was able to find dates back to November 2019. These original plans were put on permanent hold one year ago, but not before being confirmed and concretized over and over in the intervening months.

If we don't want to be mean, however, we must acknowledge that their most recent announcement did its best to temper expectations. Wizards made it clear that for now we have to make do with the Pioneer cards already on Arena anyway, in a placeholder format called Explorer. We were told to "consider this the first leg of our Pioneer journey," that supporting Pioneer "will take several years to accomplish," and that, even then, we shouldn't expect the full card pool but just "all the cards that matter."

On the other hand, it doesn't take a particularly mean observer to raise an eyebrow at the fact that, within a 36-day stretch alone, Arena can add 405 cards in support of Alchemy, with a total text exceeding 15,000 words. It's nice knowing that the programmers got time for this. Okay, the previous sentence may be steeped in petty sarcasm, but the following isn't. It is nice to know that the Arena team has the resources to implement so many cards that break the rules of Magic. Because now they can't claim it's too hard to program Emrakul, the Promised End, or purport problems with delve, which doesn't exist on the client yet. (Still petty. But no sarcasm!)

What tastes equal parts bitter and sweet is the fruit of knowing how close Pioneer could be if they stopped wasting their efforts on six-sided Alchemy abominations no one knew anyone wanted and instead focused on delivering the goods so many people are clamoring for. Because the cards necessary to give us a reasonable approximation of Pioneer paper play only number in the dozens, a mere fraction of the current Alchemy output.

"All the Cards That Matter"

pilgrim's eye

According to Scryfall, there are 3,247 cards legal in Pioneer but not legal in Explorer today. By the time you're reading this, the number may already be down, which forces us to admit that, actually, Alchemy Horizons: Baldur's Gate does have one good thing to it, after all, even if it's just one card and the card in question is Pilgrim's Eye.

In fact, this Eye should draw our eye to the more relevant question of how many of these cards appear in relevant decks. To find out I looked at all the published decks from the six most recent Pioneer Challenges on Magic Online at the time of writing. This amounts to 192 decks played to a positive record in a meaningfully competitive setting between June 11 and June 26. If I had gone further back, I would have found massive evidence of two additional cards that also aren't legal in Explorer now: Expressive Iteration and Winota, Joiner of Forces. Banned in Pioneer and unlikely to come back, it makes sense to exclude them, and not just them. The decks built around them and the decks built against them don't necessarily tell us much about the current state of the format.

I ignored lands, except those essential to a strategy, meaning Thespian's Stage and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. I ignored sideboards too as their contents aren't typically part of what makes a deck functional, more bonus than bone and easier to replace. Finally, it is possible that I left out cards because I simply didn't notice them as missing pieces. In part because Wizards' own Gatherer persists in a staunch denial of most everything that has to do with Arena, acting as the vigilante hero we deserve more than the hero we need, it isn't trivial to cross-reference decklists published by Wizards with a database of Explorer legality. To identify cards not on Arena I mainly relied on human intelligence, namely my own, or, as may be the case, lack thereof.

Anyway. Here are my results:

This might look like a huge, unwieldy list at first. But reality check: what you see above is 53 cards. Pioneer's metagame is decently diverse, but it isn't that diverse. A bigger factor and better explanation for why the number is this low may be the power creep of the late tens, early twenties, meaning: Most of the format's staples have been on Arena since their release.

Adding 53 cards is nothing, certainly not a task that should "take several years to accomplish." Notably, 53 isn't even twice the number of cards in Alchemy: New Capenna. If it were up to me, I'd bring all of these cards to Arena as soon as possible, and whatever cards show up in future Top 32s too.

However, we'd be remiss not to suggest a compromise when it doesn't much compromise the result. We can still lose a bunch of cards from this list without losing too much of the Pioneer experience.


We should start trimming at the bottom, of course, which of course depends on the sorting. I sorted the table by Top 16 finishes because I consider these a superior indicator of a card's competitive relevance. Sorry, Bassara Tower Archer, Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, Gladecover Scout, Ethereal Armor, and Gryff's Boon, I'm afraid you'll have to go. It's theoretically nice to have a Bogles variant around, and I hope we'll eventually get around to the Armor in particular. But it's hardly a priority. Similar applies to the Abzan deck built around Greasefang, Okiba Boss, which added Collective Brutality, Deathrite Shaman, and Satyr Wayfinder to the tally.

ethereal armor catacomb sifter

Catacomb Sifter appeared in two Bolas's Citadel lists, but I think we can live without it for now, especially as there's no lack of Mayhem Devil options among the rest of the decks. We can blame one of those for Shrapnel Blast, by the way, an atypical inclusion easy to disregard. The ramp deck using Nissa's Pilgrimage, Dragonlord Atarka, Emrakul, the Promised End, and World Breaker likewise finds itself overshadowed by a superior strategy in the same space, so losing these cards isn't that painful. Chained to the Rocks and more so Eidolon of Rhetoric as well as Nylea's Presence owe their presence to Enigmatic Incarnation. Once again, it's a nice deck choice to have available but hardly a cornerstone of the format.

The most contentious question concerns Lotus Field Combo. On one hand, it's Pioneer's main, possibly sole example of a game plan without which Magic would be poorer, and this one at least used to be a cornerstone of the format. On the other hand, it isn't clear how many players would appreciate it, how well it would even work with Arena's timer system, and if it can ever be a major metagame factor again. Not least, it requires the addition of at least four cards all by itself. In the spirit of minimalism, I'm willing to cut Thespian's Stage, Hidden Strings, Pore Over the Pages, Sylvan Scrying, and Behold the Beyond from my list of demands. But I can understand people who say that Pioneer without Lotus Field Combo isn't really Pioneer.

thespian's stage dig through time

If we do agree to cut Lotus Field Combo, we might as well cut Dig Through Time too. It appears in some other decks, but often as a one-of, and many could arguably switch to the far more common Treasure Cruise. Removing cards already mentioned and cleaning up some otherwise minor blips leaves the following:

These are 23 cards. If all 23 came to Arena, we could build 85 of the 96 main decks from our Top 16 sample, except for a few lands. That's 89%.

It's quite impossible to overstate the importance of this realization. The best we can do is to repeat it. Adding 23 cards to Explorer could take the format far more than half way toward Pioneer.

data fun

Further Adjustments

Data can only take us so far. In the interest of variety I'd rather add some cards not on this list, like the aforementioned Ethereal Armor or maybe the currently absent Springleaf Drum. Ignoring lands isn't entirely fair either. For instance, it's unclear how well the Favored Hoplite deck would hold up without Battlefield Forge.

To make up for it, I'd start by postponing Polukranos, World Eater. The monstrosity was a one-of in all 25 decks where it reared its heads. And only one main deck included more than two copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. To my own surprise, I'd even be fine waiting on the table's top entry. Sylvan Caryatid may be a mainstay of Green Devotion and a frequent guest in the infrequent Niv-Mizzet Reborn collaborations. But the former doesn't want more than two copies anyway and could fall back on any number of replacements.

The important takeaway is: Any player interested in Pioneer could come up with a list of 30 cards, the size of a regular Alchemy release, that would instantly transform Explorer into something close to the real deal. So, if anyone reading this is still playing on Arena, what's on your wish list?

And, if anyone reading this is working on Arena, what's taking you so long?

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not of Cardmarket.


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Landro(28.07.2022 23:13)

Arena just released a new set of cards for pioneer including a. O. Elvish Mystic, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, Supreme Verdict, Favored Hoplite and Slaughter Games.

Vayra86(07.07.2022 09:41)(Edited: 07.07.2022 10:09)

Just stay miles away from Arena. Its a digital-only, 'you have no rights as a customer' money pit, and Alchemy is a perfect example: 'your card could be different tomorrow'. If we don't kill that idea with fire, it will spread and infect more areas of MTG, and has the potential to kill it outright, at least in the digital space - and this will also harm paper. We're already getting more gimped mechanics in paper, such as writing down your colors on a land card (DM22)... That's one step further towards the utterly crappy Alchemy mechanics with all sorts of hidden content, temporary available cards and other stuff that requires a notebook if you're not on digital. The road ahead is clear: this has the potential to make paper so cumbersome to play, you'll want to do it digitally. I see major red flags. You can wait for the 'balance patch' in paper where you'll be altering cards yourself. (Laughing? Name one 'principle' Wizards R&D actually stuck to over the history of magic. Every single one is counterable by one or more cards in the portfolio. And what better way to devalue cards than by scribbling over them yourself?)

Otherwise, prepare for much more disappointment. Wizards has no interest, clearly, in delivering the formats that truly matter and positioning Arena as an MtGO stand-in. Wizards wants Arena to be their digital MTX cash cow, fully malleable at any time they need more $$$ from their community. They want us to be slaves to commerce with no control and Arena is the perfect framework. Every move made on Arena's development points in that direction, and we have seen it all before, it won't work out well.

Even this article doesn't fully seem to realize what it is asking for. It is asking for Explorer to turn into 'Pioneer' with 'the cards that matter'. But Pioneer is Pioneer because it is a 'defined format' with a 'defined selection of sets'. If you don't have the full content of those sets, the staggered release of cards to complete it, is yet another 'artificial scarcity' event that you'll be taken for a ride with. And it does so with existing crap. Its like Bethesda selling you yet another rendition of Skyrim - at full price, so you can do the same thing all over again, but with nicer graphics.

Stay. Away. Every minute spent online in Arena is a further reinforcement for Wizards to keep pushing it further. Every article written is more mindshare for this abomination. Forget this PoS, its really simple.

Groox(06.07.2022 23:37)(Edited: 06.07.2022 23:39)

Regarding Arena
I played since open beta.
Standard is pay to play if you want to be competitive, and i don't want to spend money in there too.
I already spend too much in mtg
I was finally enjoying historic after definitely too much time collecting cards when they came up with Alchemy.
Cards for arena only and with the possibility to be changed without notice? No thanks.
If I wanted to play an online card game I could have played hearthstone or something else.
I played arena because it was MTG... For a while.

Now with explorer I could give it another try, and add some cards to line up with pioneer would be definitely something worth my attenction.

That's an interesting post, and I hope someone at wizard will realise something like this, but I think they already know and simply don't care..

Vayra86(07.07.2022 09:55)(Edited: 07.07.2022 10:01)

Groox Wizards took every lesson out of the book of Korean MMO grinders, WoW, and the slew of smartphone game cash cows with microtransaction stores, plus a healthy dose of gambling addiction psychology on top. The concept is based entirely on temporary availability, power balancing is anchored on profit margins and not the health of formats, and every card is subject to change without notice.

The game is designed so you'll keep coming back and eventually buy something. This is why every minute spent on it is a minute too much. Its a casino where the bank always wins. Of course they know. They built it with the express purpose of disconnecting players from paper. Paper cards are annoying, you can't just delete them and create something new to replace its value. Collector markets are not delivering them money either. They wánt that pie too. Its pure corporate greed at the expense of the community.