Brewed Up: Wizard’s Prowess (Pioneer)

Howdy folks. It has been a minute since we brewed. As the Pioneer format has developed, we have seen red decks steadily sink. Lately they have become more aggressive and rightfully so. This is a combo format and you need to be ready to race. I find that these builds are still holding back to grind though. The format lacks a true sligh deck that can consistently race combo. Today we are changing that. With no concessions made for budget we have a competitive aggro deck for under $100 and if you own Prowess in Modern you can cut that cost in half.

Decklist
Lands (18)
14 Mountain
4 Ramunap Ruins
Creatures (14)
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Ghitu Lavarunner
2 Dreadhorde Arcanist
Spells (28)
4 Shock
4 Wild Slash
4 Wizard’s Lightning
4 Crash Through
4 Warlord’s Fury
4 Light Up the Stage
4 Lightning Strike
Sideboard (15)
2 Abrade
2 Searing Blood
2 Lava Coil
2 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
2 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Skullcrack
1 Kari Zev’s Expertise
2 Ash Zealot
75 Cards Total

The Build
Let’s start by saying that this deck is ridiculously similar to Prowess decks in Modern. The mix of lands, creatures, and spells is identical. You get to keep your one drop prowess threats. Your spells are still split between sixteen burn spells and a dozen cantrips. If you are experienced with that deck, you will feel extremely at home here. From the mulligan decisions, damage bluffing, to sideboarding. Even if you do not own it, I would recommend building both of these decks as it is inexpensive, covers two formats, and the skill development is extremely transferable.

Now with that out of the way we can begin with the manabase. It is pretty typical for a Mono-Red deck. We run just eighteen lands because 85% of our spells can be cast for a single mana. We do not hate hitting the third land to sometimes hardcast a Light Up or Wizard’s Lightning but it is rarely necessary. We do not have Modern’s canlands but Ramunap Ruins is very respectable. Five lands is a lot in here but if games go long, an uncounterable shock to the face is nice to have. The Modern build with eighteen lands is very capable of kicking a Burst Lightning at five mana and unlike them we are not sacrificing lands to Lava Dart along the way. Statistically, once you draw your fifth land there is a 77% chance that one of them was a Ramunap. The mana pain is generally a non-factor as you will be the aggressor in nearly every matchup.

I think before we get into any other spells we have to talk about Wizard’s Lightning. The key loss when porting the deck to Pioneer is the burn spells. Bolt, Spike, Dart, and Burst are all off the table. Our best analogue is Wizard’s Lightning because in here it usually is just a Bolt. We run ten wizards so that 80% of seven card hands with Wizard’s Lightning will have  a wizard available by Turn 3. This had a significant role in shaping our creature base.

First of all, we get to keep Taylor Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage when porting the deck. I only wish that Taylor was a wizard, rather than a monk, but she easily earns the spot either way. Soul-Scare Mage’s -1/-1 counter clause has felt especially relevant in this format. Swinging him into a 4/4 and knowing that a simple shock wins the trade is just gross. This forces our opponent into many, “block and probably lose the exchange, don’t block and you might die” situations. These two are still great but the other usual suspects are not making it in.

First of all, Kiln Fiend is not legal. Runaway Steamkin and Bedlam Reveler can be grouped together. They get noticeably worse when there are no free spells available and they are not wizards. You could argue that in a vacuum they are still better than the creatures discussed below but you need to look at the whole of the deck. This change would require us to cut Wizard’s Lightning and the alternatives are poor. I started with Thermo-Alchemist and Skewer the Critics to compensate; do not waste your time on it.

The new recruits have really surprised me. I will admit that they are here largely to meet wizard count requirements. The one I really did not want to play is Ghitu Lavarunner. I played this fellow in Standard and was thoroughly underwhelmed; just needed it for wizard count. Actually getting him to a 2/2 haste could take till Turn 4. Not here though. In this deck, with 24 “one drop” instants/sorceries, he has actually been great. If it is not Turn 1 he is a 2/2 haste, almost always.

Rounding out the list is Dreadhorde Arcanist. I will say that a 1/3 is not very aggressive, the trample almost never comes up, and we have no ways to pump him. But he is able to recast almost 40% of our spells with each swing (triggering Prowess) and is a wizard. I have been happy with it but I do not want to draw a second copy and he is our weakest creature so two copies make the cut; more than fourteen creatures would cut into our spell count.

The spells are where we deviate more from the Modern build, but the skeleton is the same; sixteen damage spells and a dozen cantrips. Cantrips are great with prowess creatures because you can net a bunch of triggers, utilize all of your mana, and still have the cards to do it again next turn. Light Up the Stage is still excellent. In conjunction with Slash, Shock, or Wizard’s you can get your one mana Divination with just two lands. It is often better to hold off until you have an additional mana, or at least a land drop, available. Though, in a deck full of one drops it is quite easy to play the exiled cards in time.

If you have your third land in hand you may want to fire off your Light Up before playing it. It is possible that you exile two lands and ideally you want to play one of them this turn and one the next turn; the land you held being available on the following turn. While pre-combat Light Up is preferred, especially with prowess creatures, it is not always an option. Note that combat damage will also enable spectacle. Plenty of your games, especially one land hands, will have you play a one drop creature on Turn 1 before connecting with it on Turn 2 for a second main phase Light Up.

For the inexperienced, Crash Through is non-targeted. All of your creatures will have trample and even if they are removed in response you will get to draw a card. Heck, you can cash this in on an empty board to help dig you toward some action. It is a simple card but a great effect. We need evasion because tanking to pump your team is not a great strategy in the face of many small blockers. Remember that killing an opponent’s declared blocker works differently with trample. Normally, you cannot “wait and see” because removing the blocker will leave the damage fogged. But if your creature has trample and the blocker is removed, all of your damage gets through.

Our final cantrip is Warlord’s Fury and it is not as bad as I thought. Notice that it has the non-targeted wording seen on Crash Through. I tried it in the Modern build for a bit and was underwhelmed. It is not much better here but Manamorphose is not legal. First strike is much worse than trample and most of our creatures have greater toughness than power; often rendering first strike irrelevant. But it is still good to beat out gang-blocking. If you swing in with a 3/4 and they block with two 2/2s, you effectively traded your 3/4 for a 2/2. But with first strike, you kill off the first 2/2, while avoiding its damage, and then survive the second 2/2. It also makes burn spells on blockers better; similar to Soul-Scar. You swing your 2/x first strike into their 4/4, they declare the block, you shock, you win the exchange. The card is not great but it does more than the first read implies.

Then finally we have the burn spells. They are all instants and keep your opponent unaware of your damage potential. Main phase them for Light Up but otherwise, wait till your opponent has declared blockers. They are all bad versions of Bolt. We already touched on Wizard’s Lightning because usually it actually is just Bolt. Wild Slash and Shock are basically the same card. Damage prevention effects are not common in the format and protection has mostly been phased out of contemporary card design. The damage to mana ratio on Bolt is 3, on Slash/Shock it is 2. Weaker spell in a weaker format; I cannot complain.

Rounding out the list is Lightning Strike and I am not quite sold on it. This is Bolt at double the cost so the damage to mana ratio is 1.5. It will not contribute to a Turn 2 Light Up and is harder to cast when exiled. It is a more expensive way to trigger prowess. It will not contribute to a Turn 2 Lavarunner and Arcanist cannot cast it. I do not want to run Skewer because multiple spectacle cards can clog a hand; again, I tried this. The format is light on x/2s for mainboard Searing Blood. Targeted effects, such as Expedite, will make opposing removal better. Strike is a tad mopey but I do not hate it and it is a format staple for a reason.

Finally we come to the sideboard. It is built to have a little something for every deck in the format. We are fast enough to make Tormod’s Crypt effective hate against Inverter; they need to Turn 6 us if we have it in play. Abrade helps with Ensoul decks or the x/3s out of Spirits. Ash Zealot is our answer to Breach decks because Eidolon’s recoil is too harsh. Lava Coil helps with any large creatures that our typical burn cannot handle and keeps recursive threats down. Searing Blood is outright busted against weenie decks as it is a face Bolt and a creature Shock in one.

The other options have me conflicted. Skullcrack is mostly for Mono-White but if you saw lifegain in a Game 2, feel free to bring it in for Game 3. But holding up mana to counter things is not ideal in prowess decks. I am not certain what to do with the Saheeli slot. She has been great against decks that try to grind us out. But Bedlam Reveler would be too. Bonecrush Giant commonly holds this slot in Modern. Really any of them would be great but keep it at two because they are not wizards and too many threats will weaken the core strategy post-board. Then finally we have Kari Zev’s Expertise. It straight steals games against creature decks and can net two prowess triggers. People that lose a Game 2 to it will make poor decisions out of fear in Game 3; think Spell Pierce or Deflecting Palm.

As far as sideboarding strategy goes, be careful. The deck is built very delicately and there are a lot of moving pieces. If you cut too many one drop spells your are hurting Lavarunner and Arcanist. Board out too much burn and you have made Light Up harder to enable. Trim on those wizards, you are making Wizard’s Lightning inconsistent. The point is that you should not shift things around needlessly. You can go down to eight wizards, you can go down to twelve one-drop instants/sorceries, you can trim Strikes pretty liberally. Usually I find myself reaching for Fury, Strike, or Arcanists. If people whine enough I will probably make a sideboard guide.

As for play patterns, I would refer you to our older piece on playing Modern Prowess. This has probabilities and play patterns that apply to both decks. However, you should mulligan less aggressively. A hyper-simplified explanation would be that Modern build cards are worth 3 damage and Pioneer build cards are worth 2.5 damage. By this logic, you need two lands and seven spells to kill in Modern but two lands and eight spells to kill in Pioneer. Therefore, mulligans are more painful and you should keep more often. To help out, our curve is a touch lower than the Modern build and one land hands are more reasonable as a result.

Alternative Build
Lands (20)
16 Mountain
4 Ramunap Ruins
Creatures (16)
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Rimrock Knight
4 Bonecrusher Giant
Spells (24)
4 Shock
4 Wild Slash
4 Crash Through
4 Warlord’s Fury
4 Light Up the Stage
4 Lightning Strike
60 Cards Total

What I would like to try next though is cutting the wizard package entirely. They have been pretty great but they do present restrictions in decklbuilding and sideboarding. The quick swap I want to test is going for adventure spells. Bonecrusher Giant and Rimrock Knight are tearing it up in Standard; and Pioneer to a lesser degree already. One notable weakness of the current build is that early spot removal, mostly Fatal Push, can be a big setback. Remember that when porting the deck we kept our great creatures but ended up with weaker burn spells. If you do not connect with a creature, you will need about eight burn spells to close the game. You cannot just add more threats either because you will statistically weaken all of the other creatures.

That is not the case with the adventure creatures though. They have the benefit of triggering prowess but also being a threat later. Lavarunner becomes Rimrock and the one mana burst damage is comparable. Turning our prowess threats into a 4/4 singlehandedly is impressive. Wizard’s Lightning becomes Bonecrusher Giant. Admittedly, he is not as good at triggering Light Up because you need three mana. I also do not think that the anti-prevention is particularly relevant. Regardless, it still does the job and Bonecrusher Giant is actually quite efficient. Power higher than mana cost, forces Push users to get revolt on, and even shocks them for pulling the trigger.

Rimrock might be less than ideal though. Boulder Rush is not going to do anything unless we have another creature in play. Just slamming a 3/1 that cannot block for two mana is not exactly inspiring. The alternative would be Abbot of Keral Keep. We are already well suited to play things off of Light Up with our low curve. Abbot forces us to do so immediately but we can reasonably expect to use it on Turn 3. Slamming it on Turn 2 as a simple 2/1 prowess can be quite powerful as well. That being said, Lighting up into this or hitting Light Up off it could be frustrating if we are not flooded.

Either way, we do lose out on some of our explosiveness. It is somewhat ironic. My starting point for the deck was “these slow red decks only feel good when you draw the fast portion of the deck”. Now I am looking at the build and thinking “what if this fast deck had a slow portion?”. To make this work we do need to add a couple lands so our topdecks are a bit worse. But we end up with greater threat density and higher spell count while staying at sixty cards. I have not tested this build so I cannot say whether is is better or not. If you test both, it is not expensive to do so, please let me know your conclusion.

Wrap-Up
Well it was nice to come back and present another brew to you folks. COVID-19 has wiped out my commute so I have some time back in my day with which to write. The time off has been a bummer as I have had several brews banned before I could write about them, but that is the nature of contemporary Magic. Anyways, I love this deck and I would not expect a ban on it any time soon. Everyone is taking it slow trying to outvalue one another and shocking themselves without a care. Nobody is prepared to take 7-9 damage on Turn 2. This is the best way to punish them and at under $100 it is an absolute steal. Thanks for reading and hopefully I will be back with another one soon. Until then my friends.

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