Explorer Anthology Announcement and Analysis

A breakdown of the twenty cards being printed into Explorer tomorrow and predictions on how they will affect the meta in the near and long-terms.

The Great Reveal

The first Explorer Anthology releases tomorrow, with twenty Pioneer cards that Wizards of the Coast had billed in the teaser as intended to be a mix of tiered deck staples and fringe favorites. 

As revealed this afternoon, the cards in the anthology are as follows:

Mausoleum Wanderer
Slaugher Games
Shadowborn Apostle
Tireless Tracker
Supreme Verdict
Elvish Mystic
Titan’s Strength
Favored Hoplite
Hangarback Walker
Battlewise Hoplite
Searing Blood
Ensoul Artifact
Back to Nature
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Darksteel Citadel
Seige Rhino
Rally the Ancestors
Temur Battle Rage
Tainted Remedy
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death

Overall Thoughts

This is certainly a list of Pioneer cards, and if the PlayingExplorer team was taking bets when we wrote the Explorer Anthology Wishlist article, we would all owe the pot. Only five of these 20 cards were even mentioned by anyone on the team. Two of these cards, I had to Google (can you guess which ones?)

Anyway, WOTC’s underlying philosophy here is interesting to me, and I appreciate the attention that appears to be being paid to keeping Explorer a balanced, fresh format on its slow journey to Pioneer proper. If they wanted to, twenty cards could have largely filled out every deck on the current Pioneer tier list. Instead, they’re printing Battlewise Hoplite.

First, let’s get into some of the cards I think Wizards was referring to when they teased “tiered deck staples”.

Tiered Deck Staples

Looking at the tier list on PlayingPioneer.com, you’ll find a fair amount of these cards within the decklists (if you go back six months ago, you’ll find even more). Namely, Mausoleum Wanderer, Supreme Verdict, Elvish Mystic, Favored Hoplite, Titan’s Strength and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are key cards in Mono-Blue Spirits, UW Control, Green Ramp and Stompy, Boros Heroic and Rakdos Midrange and Vampires decks, respectively.

Big Winners of the Anthology

Boros Heroic

In terms of sheer quantity of cards from this Anthology, decks that have spells that target their own creatures and creatures that enjoy being targeted by spells got the most support. Of course, I’m talking about Boros Heroic, which now has Favored Hoplite – a near-crucial card for the archetype – as well as Titan’s Strength and even Temur Battle Rage and Battlewise Hoplite if you’re feeling spicy. Heroic was looking well-positioned for about a two-week period in early July, and Favored Hoplite is almost surely enough for Boros Heroic to make the trek up the Explorer tier list as it has been on the Pioneer side for some time. From the Pioneer port, the deck is still missing Monastery Swiftspear, Battlefield Forge and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer (and Rending Volley in the sideboard).

Arena Decklist

4 Ancestral Anger
3 Clever Lumimancer
4 Defiant Strike
1 Den of the Bugbear
1 Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
4 Favored Hoplite
1 Feather, the Redeemed
4 Gods Willing
3 Homestead Courage
4 Illuminator Virtuoso
4 Inspiring Vantage
2 Invigorated Rampage
1 Maximize Velocity
2 Mountain
4 Needleverge Pathway
2 Plains
4 Reckless Rage
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Sejiri Shelter
4 Soul-Scar Mage
3 Tenth District Legionnaire

SIDEBOARD:
1 Feather, the Redeemed
2 Fight as One
1 Light of Hope
2 Portable Hole
3 Rampaging Ferocidon
2 Redcap Melee
1 Roiling Vortex
1 Unchained Berserker
1 Unlicensed Hearse
1 Weathered Runestone

Mono-Blue Spirits

Mausoleum Wanderer was the only addition here, but it was also the only card missing from the Pioneer version, and it does a ton of work for the deck. In a lot of cases, Mausoleum Wanderer might as well read “one-mana, deal four damage to your opponent, counter target instant or sorcery”. Mausoleum Wanderer was sorely missed by Pioneer-to-Explorer Spirits converts, and I’m sure Explorer-first Spirits players will welcome its addition. I personally think this addition will boost Mono-Blue Spirits dramatically and am planning on playing the deck extensively starting tomorrow. Though, Supreme Verdict is here now, and Rakdos Midrange isn’t going anywhere.

Arena Decklist

4 Ascendant Spirit
4 Curious Obsession
4 Faceless Haven
4 Geistlight Snare
2 Lofty Denial
1 Otawara, Soaring City
4 Rattlechains
4 Shacklegeist
3 Slip Out the Back
18 Snow-Covered Island
4 Spectral Sailor
4 Supreme Phantom

SIDEBOARD:
2 Aether Gust
1 Brazen Borrower
1 Cerulean Drake
1 Disdainful Stroke
1 Dive Down
4 Mystical Dispute
3 Unlicensed Hearse
2 Witness Protection

Rakdos Midrange

While only getting one card, Rakdos Midrange hardly needed the help on the best-of-three Explorer ladder, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is plenty of help. Kalitas propelling Rakdos even further might effectively nullify some of the other additions to the format like Favored Hoplite and Mausoleum Wanderer, but things should start to level out soon with UW Control getting the piece they need in Supreme Verdict. Explorer Rakdos Midrange now only needs Dreadbore and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (and Rending Volley for the sideboard) to fully match most Pioneer builds. 

Arena Decklist

4 Blightstep Pathway
4 Blood Crypt
2 Bloodchief’s Thirst
4 Bloodtithe Harvester
4 Bonecrusher Giant
1 Castle Locthwain
2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
1 Cut /// Ribbons
2 Den of the Bugbear
4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker
4 Fatal Push
1 Goblin Dark-Dwellers
4 Graveyard Trespasser
4 Haunted Ridge
2 Hive of the Eye Tyrant
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
2 Mountain
1 Shatterskull Smashing
1 Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance
1 Strangle
2 Swamp
1 Takenuma, Abandoned Mire
1 Tenacious Underdog
4 Thoughtseize
1 Unlicensed Hearse

SIDEBOARD:
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Duress
1 Extinction Event
3 Go Blank
1 Kolaghan’s Command
1 Noxious Grasp
2 Ob Nixilis, the Adversary
3 Unlicensed Hearse

UW Control

Control joins the list of decks that are “complete” in terms of their Pioneer decklist ports. Supreme Verdict was almost universally replaced by Shatter the Sky in Explorer (I’ll never understand why it wasn’t Doomskar), but now the uncounterable boardwipe is here and the rest of us all have to account for it.

Arena Decklist

4 Absorb
1 Castle Ardenvale
1 Castle Vantress
4 Censor
4 Deserted Beach
3 Dovin’s Veto
1 Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
1 Farewell
2 Fateful Absence
3 Field of Ruin
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Hall of Storm Giants
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Irrigated Farmland
3 Island
2 March of Otherworldly Light
2 Memory Deluge
1 Otawara, Soaring City
2 Plains
4 Portable Hole
3 Shark Typhoon
3 Supreme Verdict
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
3 The Wandering Emperor

SIDEBOARD:
2 Aether Gust
1 Dovin’s Veto
2 Dream Trawler
1 Farewell
1 Hullbreaker Horror
3 Mystical Dispute
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Shatter the Sky
1 Soul-Guide Lantern
1 Weathered Runestone

Green Decks

Elvish Mystic was another card that Pioneer players were surprised to not have access to in Explorer. A staple in a wide variety of green decks, some Explorer players were resorting to Gilded Goose to fill the slot. Some green decks will be Pioneer-complete thanks to this addition (like some versions of Mono-Green Stompy and Fight Rigging), while others are waiting for a few other key pieces.

Too Little, Too Late?

Slaughter Games was seeing extensive play in Pioneer rather recently as combo decks like Lotus Field and 4C Ascendancy dominated the format for a brief time. Without the format’s combo decks getting any support, Slaughter Games feels like a strange addition that won’t end up seeing much play.

Before the Lurrus ban and the printing of March of Otherworldly Light, Ensoul Artifact and Darksteel Citadel were seeing a ton of play, and I know there are more than a few people who are excited to jam it in Explorer, where it could find a new home.

Other than those few cards and the staple cards above, though, the rest of the anthology is full of cards that have either never seen much play in Pioneer or have not seen any play recently. 

Fringe Fan Favorites

Shadowborn Apostle? Tainted Remedy? Back to Nature? There are definitely people out there that are very excited about these cards joining the fray, but don’t feel too bad if you aren’t one of them (or if you’ve never even heard of some of these cards). While Tainted Remedy seems funny against the lifegain decks that are dominating the Bo1 ladder, I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for the card to be Explorer-legal. If you were – well, congratulations! It’s coming tomorrow.

In seriousness, though, I am a fan of the “fringe favorite” concept for these Explorer Anthologies (as I wrote in our team’s Explorer Anthology Wishlist article). I like the idea of Explorer remaining a bit of a testing ground for Pioneer – as in, which cards or strategies are too powerful in an environment without certain answers to it? Plus, I want Explorer to maintain its own identity just a little while longer, especially as Arena-first players are introduced to some of these cards for the first time – as if they are new again. 

The “fringe favorites” include Searing Blood, Back to Nature, Siege Rhino, Rally the Ancestors, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, Temur Battle Rage, Tainted Remedy, Hangarback Walker and Tireless Tracker.

This isn’t to say these aren’t powerful cards (how could that be said about cards like Hangarback Walker or Tireless Tracker?), it’s just that they haven’t been seeing play in Pioneer recently and aren’t exactly what many were expecting. 

Some of these cards open up entire archetypes, like Rally the Ancestors and Hangarback Walker. Others were missing pieces to Explorer pet decks, like Tireless Tracker for Golgari Midrange and Seige Rhino for people who play Seige Rhino.

Others, like Back to Nature, Alesha and Tainted Remedy are either foreshadowing for the next set, are really there for Historic or are just…there.

The Anthology has had mixed reviews on Reddit and Twitter since the leak yesterday, with many being disappointed that their favorite deck didn’t get anything and others questioning the definition of “fringe favorite”.

The Upsets

Mono-Red

Most of the Pioneer and Explorer players I know were expecting either Eidolon of the Great Revel, Monastary Swiftspear or both. Mono-Red players got Searing Blood instead. This could be a decision Wizards made on the basis of the best-of-one ladder – where Mono-Red is dangerously close to ban-worthy as it is – or because they don’t think Explorer as a format is ready for Eidolon. Either way, Mono-Red will likely continue on the aggro Torbran/Embercleave path over the burn path for the forseeable future.

Niv to Light

They didn’t print Bring to Light or Sylvan Caryatid to save Explorer from the Rakdos Midrange beast. Pioneer Niv fans will have to continue building the glorious BTL-free five-color lists I’ve been admiring from across the table.

Izzet Phoenix

Temporal Trespass, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise and Thing in the Ice are all notably missing from this anthology. Phoenix never truly solidified itself in Explorer (especially post-Expressive Iteration ban), and it doesn’t get any help in doing so tomorrow.

5C Humans

While we got Alesha (and I will try her in my 5C Pyre build), Humans players were speculating quite a bit about Mantis Rider and Reflector Mage coming to Arena, which would have been a tremendous boon for the deck.

The Other Spirits Decks

Azorious and Bant Spirits will not be quelling any spells tomorrow, as was anticipated by many. No Selfless Spirit, either, means there is very little reason to leave Mono-Blue.

Combo Players

Lotus Field, Neoform, Ascendancy Combo and Mono-Green Karn Combo players will all go unrepresented tomorrow, still missing Pore Over the Pages, Hidden Strings, Jeskai Ascendancy, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and the delve creatures necessary to put together their respective combos. 

Pioneer Brewers

No matter which twenty cards were printed in this anthology, there would have been brewers left out of the fun. This is the nature of printing twenty cards at a time into a format missing more than 1,000 cards. This Anthology, though, really only gave brewers Rally the Ancestors, Shadowborn Apostle and Hangarback Walker to have any fun with. I would have liked to see a few more build-around cards printed in this Anthology.

Meta Prediction

On release day, I fully expect to see a meteoric rise in Mono-Blue Spirits players, attributed both to Pioneer Spirits players finally coming over to Explorer now that their deck is complete and to Explorer players who want to dip their toes into the spirit realm. Heroic will almost certainly see an uptick in play as well, as will Mono-Green and Gruul decks of all flavors. This will all be overshadowed, though, by the war going on in the background between Rakdos Midrange and UW Control – the winner of which will set the tone for which other decks will thrive on the ladder in the early days, while ultimately settling Explorer into its first true rock-paper-scissors meta.

Balance is Found

Just using Spirits (Scissors), Heroic (Scissors), Rakdos (Rock) and UW Control (Paper) as examples, the rock-paper-scissors meta could form like this:

UW Control beats out Rakdos Midrange for the top slot in playrate. To beat paper, players start throwing scissors, either by playing Heroic and Spirits or altering Rakdos Midrange to be more aggressive. After some time of the scissors decks beating paper, players realize they can throw rock again, and the more midrangy forms of Rakdos Midrange move toward the top again. The cycle repeats.

Or like this:

Rakdos Midrange retains its spot as the top-played deck, keeping Spirits and Heroic from gaining steam in the early days. UW Control rises to the challenge, eventually beating out Rakdos Midrange and causing a shift to scissors decks to combat the prevalence of paper decks. UW Control adapts by shifting toward rock (playing lower-to-the-ground removal and even lifelink creatures), but eventually Midrange (rock) decks become the more viable option. The cycle repeats.

You’ll notice that no matter how it starts, the pattern settles into the same thing in both cases. This is a sign of a balanced format, and represents a format with frequent tier list changes as it moves from one stage to another. Explorer has been missing powerful paper decks, and Supreme Verdict will go a long way in mending that. As polarizing as UW Control is, it’s a necessary piece of the balanced format puzzle.

On the Pioneer side, UW Control broke into S Tier this week, breaking the lockstep it’s been in with Rakdos Midrange for three weeks. If things shake out the same way in Explorer, I will be happy with my initial choice to invest in Mono-Blue Spirits. If Rakdos remains at the top in the early days, Spirits players like me need not despair, as in a balanced format, the meta cycle will be forever moving, never falling back into the pre-anthology Rakdos Midrange-defined meta for more than a couple of weeks.

Closing Thoughts

Of course, there were cards I would have preferred to see in this Anthology over Tainted Remedy (I really wanted Shrapnel Blast and Reflector Mage), but overall, these twenty cards represent, to me, an inherent statement from Wizards on what Explorer will be in the near-term: its own format. Until it’s Pioneer, Explorer will retain its own identity. Here at PlayingExplorer.com, we will cover that format and provide a weekly-updated tier list until the day that it is Pioneer. At that time, I will be honored to invite you all to PlayingPioneer.com, where we have a team of dedicated competitive players, authors and content creators ready to help you through the transition.

I’ve said this before here, but I approach Explorer with a Pioneer brain, which somewhat prevents me from looking at the format as its own and evaluating the current cardpool as it is now rather than by what it’s missing. There is certainly a combo or strategy that these twenty cards unlocked in Explorer that isn’t viable in Pioneer that only an Explorer-first player will find. So go find it! And have fun!

  • Publisher

    rose-emoji started playing Magic: The Gathering during Battle for Zendikar, then took a break from the game until Throne of Eldraine. Pioneer got him back into Magic full-force, and the launch of Arena on mobile hooked him in forever. Now that his favorite format is working its way onto Arena, he can be found grinding the format to death, mostly in Grixis colors, mono-colors or tribal decks.

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