Tell Me it’s a Nightmare
I would like to preface this article by saying that I really wanted to name this article something along the lines of “&%# Rattlechains”, but I’m fairly sure the rest of Playing Pioneer would not be very happy with that decision. But seriously, I hate Rattlechains. As the resident Mono Red player, that card lives in my nightmares. It is one of the hardest cards to play around, and it leads to more unwinnable boardstates than any other card in this format. A large amount of the time when playing against Spirits, removal heavy decks such as Mono Red are able to leverage time as a resource, forcing the Spirits player into unfavorable positions by casting removal spells at awkward times, such as during combat, or in the Spirits’ player’s upkeep step. With Rattlechains in the picture, you are no longer losing tempo by casting your “counterspell,” as putting a 2/1 into play will do a good job at trading off on the following turn. This card is the bane of my existence, not even God can fathom what I would do to purge this card from this realm.
Anyway, let’s talk about Spirits!
Party ‘till I Die
In the early days of Pioneer, Spirits did exist, but it did not look anything close to this deck. The “stock” version was Bant Spirits, but the deck heavily relied on Collected Company to pull its weight for the deck to perform. This was before Empyrean Eagle so the only lord we had was Supreme Phantom. Before Skyclave Apparition, the only removal creature was Reflector Mage. The deck was NOT very good, but that was ok, because it was in the Bant color combination, so it was allowed to play Oko and Teferi, the real draws to this deck.
Sadly, it is not 2019 anymore, and times have changed. Today, the best spirits decks look to be much more aggressive, and do not like to mess around with any three or two color manabases. Instead of playing tempo cards like Reflector Mage and Spell Queller, all we are looking to do as Mono Blue Spirits is to kill our opponent and counter a few spells while we do it. If we take a look at the main-deck of the list above, the entire thing consists of creatures, counterspells, four Curious Obsession, and one Unsummon. That’s it. Nothing fancy. No Icon of Ancestry, no Witness Protection, no funny business. This strategy currently works due to how well positioned cheap creatures are at the moment. Although decks like Izzet Phoenix and Izzet Prowess are rising in popularity, there is still a very large percent of the meta game that just looks to ignore what their opponent is doing and cast their big, dumb threat. Decks like Winota, Mono Green Ramp, and Lotus Field all fall prey to Spirits due to their over reliance on a singular expensive pay-off. Because Spirits is able to apply such an aggressive clock while being backed up by cheap counter magic all along the low curve, you rarely ever need to leave too much mana open in order to effectively interact with your opponent’s game plan.
Turn Off the Light
The “new” card that really made Mono Blue Spirits the go-to version of the deck was Geistlight Snare, and if you have played against this card, you already know exactly why. Any game where you are able to curve a one mana creature into a Curious Obsession while holding open a Geistlight Snare, you are extremely favored to win. One mana counterspell? Sign me up. Even when you don’t have an Obsession in play, if you ended up casting a Witness Protection on one of your opponent’s creatures, that still counts as an enchantment in the eyes of Snare, so it will still cost one mana as long as you control a spirit. This card is super effective at protecting your “God Draw”, and will allow you to continue to generate advantage with the Obsessive creature. One of the things I see a lot of players do incorrectly when playing this card, is that they are playing way too scared. People don’t like their card advantage engine being removed from play, so they will do everything in their power to make sure the Curious Obsession and the creature it will be attached to doesn’t die – so much so that they sometimes sandbag the card in their hand until the “coast is clear”, or they have enough counter magic to guarantee protect it. The issue with this thinking is that even if you get one singular hit in with the Obsession, it has already replaced itself! That’s it! You’re done! The card did exactly what it needed to do, it replaced itself. Sure, protecting the Obsession is usually a game plan that will lead to victory, but sometimes you just need to “shove” and ask your opponent “Do you have it?”. The times they do “have it”, you will have already drawn your card and your value out of it, and that’s fine. But when they don’t “have it”, you almost always just win the game. Having a combined card advantage machine AND a higher damage output will lead you to victory super easily, and so the rest of the game becomes trivial.
Now, it’s time to talk about the card that is actually considered to be the “new” card, Witness Protection. When this card was spoiled, people called it a “one-mana Doom Blade” or “the blue Swords to Plowshares”, and for the first few weeks, people were pretty spot-on. Almost every single Blue Spirits deck you saw completely cut Entrancing Melody for this card, you saw four copies in every sideboard. We all saw this card and thought to ourselves “wow, this seems amazing at beating almost anything we could need! Elves, Eidolons, Thing in the Ice, are all easily dealt with. Awesome!”. We were mostly right. If you take a look at the metagame at the moment, and even the deck list that I linked at the start of this article, you will see that there are close to zero lists that play the full playset – most opting for one copy, or even zero. Why is it that we all thought this card was busted? Well, the issue lies in the core strategy of the Spirits macro archetype. As I mentioned before, the goal of the deck was to deploy early threats and pressure, and spend the late game using permission to stop our opponent’s large plays. Due to this, spending the first turns of the game removing our opponent’s creatures isn’t great, it means we are not able to deploy our own threats as quickly, and for the most part, the creatures we want to be hitting with Witness are a bit on the cheaper side, so we are heavily incentivised to cast the card early. If we instead play more counterspells to deal with the late game spells, and use the early turns to develop the board and apply pressure, it turns out that you don’t actually need to be wasting slots in your sideboard for Witness Protection. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but once you play with the card, you will be able to understand for yourself why this card isn’t the trump card we all thought it was on Day 1 of Streets of New Capenna.
In the Next Life
I know I have made fun of Mono Blue Spirits in the past, so I hope the act of writing this article will allow me to atone for my sins, because this deck is now one of the top contenders in the format for good reason. This archetype is resilient, redundant, and powerful, and does everything that someone like me wants to see in a game of magic: smashing face, while also not allowing your opponent to play Magic. Oh, and bonus points if you can comment below what album all of the titles came from!