Archetype Log Jam: Spirits Edition
So, you’ve decided to play spirits, but after gathering up all the candles in the house, dusting off the ouija board and arranging your sleeves into a pentagram, you still aren't sure which version of the deck to play. Have no fear, Ruckman is here!
Spirits in My Head and They Won’t Go
So, you’ve decided to play spirits, but after gathering up all the candles in the house, dusting off the ouija board and arranging your sleeves into a pentagram, you still aren’t sure which version of the deck to play. Have no fear, Ruckman is here! In this new recurring series I’ll be going over various deck archetypes that have multiple distinct builds to choose from, in the hopes that by the time we’re done here you have all the information you need to pick the version best for you. Now, let’s head down to the mausoleum and look at what sets Mono-Blue, Azorius, and Bant Spirits apart from each other.
First up is the least expensive option of the three, coming in at around $100 for the whole deck, and even then about half that cost is in your Brazen Borrowers and Snow-Covered Islands. Don’t let the low barrier to entry here fool you; this deck makes for a great entry point into the format and consistently puts up 5-0 league results, and is no stranger to MTGO Challenge top 32’s (and even top 16’s in recent weeks). These factors alone make this deck a strong contender for anyone looking to join the format on the cheap, and doesn’t even bring into consideration the upgrade paths to the upcoming Azorius and Bant variants which both add onto this mono-blue base without drastic changes to the overall core.
When talking about Mono-Blue Spirits, I think the first comparison people will make is to a Delver of Secrets strategy seen in formats like Modern and Legacy. I’m not going to say that’s a poor comparison, but I also don’t think it’s 100% accurate either. While yes, the game plan is to stick an efficient threat and then out-tempo our opponent by cheaply answering their spells. Very rarely will your games be as simple as playing a turn-one flier, turn-two Curious Obsession, and then just perfectly counter all of the opponent’s plays until they concede. Players need to be prepared to constantly re-evaluate their position and weigh their leverage at any given moment and change things up at the drop of a dime. And, thanks to the strong core spirits being played, you have plenty of ways to answer your opponent while still advancing your board. Mausoleum Wanderer is easily one of the most aggravating one-drops in the format, temporarily growing for the turn allowing for some good chunks of damage and then letting you sacrifice it without the need to tap. Rattlechains is, in my mind, the unsung hero of all the spirit decks, allowing us to play our game entirely on the opponent’s turn – and the free hexproof trigger for a turn is a nice cherry on top. Both of these cards in tandem also make for a great time, allowing us to flash in some spirits in response to a must-answer spell and increasing the amount of tax that gets applied by Wanderer’s sacrifice ability. Unlike the other versions of spirits, Mono-Blue currently only plays one lord effect in Supreme Phantom, though Patrician Geist is an option for those looking for additional lord effects. The deck is also more likely to play some of the non-standard spirit choices that Azorius and Bant generally forgo, mainly multiple copies of Spectral Adversary and Cemetery Illuminator (though the latter does see occasional play at times in the other variants as well) and of course, a full playset of Ascendant Spirit
What sets Mono-Blue the most from the other spirit decks though are definitely the non-spirits the deck plays. Brazen Borrower previously saw play when Bant Spirits first entered the pioneer scene, but has since been replaced in both Bant and Azorius by Skyclave Apparition. For its counter package, mono-blue has started eschewing Lofty Denial and has started playing Geistlight Snare in its place. The tradeoff being that instead of costing Opponent one mana more, it costs us one mana less thanks to Curious Obsession. Curious Obsession, of course, gives the deck some much-needed card advantage on top of reducing the cost of Snare.
Spells aren’t the only difference between these decks though, as Mono-Blue’s snow-covered mana base allows the deck to play multiple copies of the powerful manland Faceless Haven, which puts up big damage and gives a little extra wrath insurance since the deck lacks wrath protection in Selfless Spirit.
Finally, the deck can also afford itself a few flex slots, generally being used to pack additional counterspells like Miscast and, more recently, a one-of copy of Icon of Ancestry for an anthem effect and a little extra card advantage in the late game.
To sum it all up, Mono-blue spirits is a great budget entry into the Pioneer format or serves as an excellent choice for someone looking to add another deck to their Pioneer arsenal. It has a proven competitive pedigree, especially when the format shifts to a slower/midrange format where countering one or two key spells is enough to lock up the win with some highly-synergistic evasive threats. The core tribal synergies carry over into the other spirit variants, meaning this is an investment that can be built upon and time spent learning play patterns do not have to be fully relearned should a player decide this type of strategy is right for them.
We’ve talked about Mono-Blue, now let’s see what adding white gets us in Azorius Spirits. Well, right off the bat: let’s note the price jump, as our cost has gone up from close to $100 to close to $300, but rest assured it’s definitely worth the price of admission. Adding white gives Azorius Spirits a more robust mainboard, a mana-base that can be carried over into multiple other decks, and some of the best sideboard options the format has to offer.
As I said earlier, a lot of the core spirits carry over into this deck with Mausoleum Wanderer, Rattlechains, Supreme Phantom, Shacklegeist, and Spectral Sailor all still finding home in the 75 here. Of course, the addition of white does give the deck a lot of new cards to play with. Selfless Spirit gives some nice wrath protection in the mainboard, and can even help protect key threats in a pinch or allow for massive attacks/blocks that would generally be unfavorable. The deck picks up four more lords thanks to Empyrean Eagle, but because it affects creatures with flying and not just spirits, players should be very careful when making note of what gets affected. For instance, Skyclave Apparition doesn’t enjoy the bonus Eagle provides, but players will enjoy the addition of Apparition to the deck. Apparition allows the deck to answer a wide swathe of permanents in the format, because as it turns out that four mana or less is a pretty common range for Pioneer. Also make note that Apparition uses the old templating on its exile effect, so if for any reason, Apparition leaves the board before its enter the battlefield trigger resolves, Opponent won’t get a token and their permanent will still be exiled.
One addition that does get boosted by Eagle, however, is the core set bomb Watcher of the Spheres. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that Azorious Spirits wouldn’t exist without Watcher giving spirits archetypes an excuse to drop Collected Company for the first time in the format’s life. It’s just so powerful – making the deck’s already cheap creatures even cheaper. It also just acts as a big beat stick, temporarily growing in stats for each flier you play in a turn. Players will need to be careful when they play out Watcher, however, because your opponent will do everything they can to take it off the table. Be sure to take this into account when deciding when to cast this powerful two-drop.
Of course, the biggest addition from adding white is the format all-star Spell Queller. What can I say besides “yes, this card is as powerful as it looks”. The limit to its enter-the-battlefield ability means matchups like Niv-to-Light or other decks using 5+ mana-cost spells are a hassle, though.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that white also gives the deck access to some of the best sideboard spells in pioneer such as Rest In Peace, Settle the Wreckage, Deafening Silence, and Portable Hole.
As for gameplay differences – the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the general game plan for Azorius still lines up very similarly to Mono-Blue. Players will want to establish an early threat or two and then start leveraging positive tempo plays to take over the game. Of course, the big difference here being that the Azorius threats can hit a little harder and has added a selection of higher impact creatures to that mono-blue core spirit package. This is a theme that will be carried over into the discussion on Bant as well – meaning no matter where players begin their spirited journey, they will have a lot of applicable experience if they transition to a different build, and only have to learn how to incorporate the new tools.
Azorius Spirits is a child of its meta: born at a time when Niv-to-Light had a death grip on the format, and made up for Bant’s shortcomings by playing at the time newly-printed Lofty Denial and Watcher of the Spheres. Speeding the deck up slightly by replacing Collected Company with Watcher, and adding a counter spell that could interact with either Bring to Light or Niv-Mizzet Reborn. Because of this, it can be – at times – better-suited for a meta that sees Bant Spirit’s reliance on Spell Queller being pushed down the meta ladder. As such, it comes highly recommended for players wanting to play a resilient tempo strategy and don’t mind making a more committed investment into the Pioneer format, but just aren’t ready to take the plunge on Bant. As a last note, I would avoid trying to build the deck by just buying two copies of the Pioneer Challenge deck unless you can find a VERY good deal on it. The mana base included is pretty sub-par and will still require a lot of upgrades and you’ll be left around with more copies of most of the deck than you’ll need.
Now the time has come to talk about one of the elder statesmen of the Pioneer format, Bant Spirits. Long time listeners of Crew3 content will know how much I love Bant Spirits, with it still probably being my most-played deck in the format (despite tending to avoid playing it on Magic Online and saving it only for paper). I just played the deck so much pre-pandemic and continue to play it when I want to take things a little more seriously at my local Pioneer events. It’s certainly the most expensive option out of the three, but the thrill of resolving Collected Company sure is worth it.
Compared to the transition from Mono-Blue to Azorius, the transition from Azorius to Bant is a lot more subdued. Of course, this comes from the fact the only real difference is the addition of Collected Company and the removal of Lofty Denial. And if readers have been paying attention, this is pretty much by design – since Azorius Spirits was actually a meta-focused evolution of Bant Spirits, and not the other way around. Because of this, I think’s it’s fair to base the conversation for Bant Spirits around the question of if Company is, in fact, worth it. And in most meta games, I think the answer is a resounding “yes”. As long as Spell Queller continues to line up favorably with the top decks, I’ll continue to sleeve up my favorite three-colored pile. In effect, Company turns the deck into a tool box. Yes, one that’s limited by what’s on top of the deck, but a tool box nonetheless. Opponent plays a Supreme Verdict? Look for a Queller or Selfless Spirit and grab a lord while you’re at it. Opponent plays a Dreadbore? Look for a Rattlechains and grab a Skyclave Apparition while you’re at it to deal with their Graveyard Trespasser. Company means players aren’t limited to their draw step, and can treat the top of their library like a second hand. Of course, sometimes the Company doesn’t always strike good so it’s best not to treat its power as an absolute. But, trimming on the weaker hits (like the removal of Spectral Sailor) and leaving the cream of the crop can help keep the odds in your favor. This also means that the deck’s mainboard can be better tailored to suit a player’s local meta game.
Bant Spirits has long existed in the pioneer metagame, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. It makes for a good deck for a player that is looking to pick up one deck and stick with it, rewarding players for understanding the meta they find themselves in and adjusting to include the right answers for the job. The deck can be on the more expensive side to pick up all at once, but it can be transitioned into Mono-Blue or Azorius Spirits for minimal investment afterwards. Also, thanks to being a popular tribe, the deck is always finding new potential playables with every set release. It should be noted though, that while the deck has consistently found success, it comes from learning your matchups and leaning on 60/40 odds as opposed to 90/10.
I hope our readers will find this piece useful for clearing up some of the differences surrounding the three main Spirit variants in Pioneer. Players can find a good amount of success no matter which version they pick, but obviously they each have their own pros and cons. Pioneer certainly isn’t short on archetypes with wildly different variants, so if you enjoyed this let us know in the poll below if there are any in particular you’d like me to discuss next!