Feature Article from Adam Yurchick

Sprits Are Soaring in Pioneer

Adam Yurchick

12/19/2019 11:02:00 AM

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Last week was the first in nearly two months without a Pioneer PTQ on Magic Online, but the MagicFest in Oklahoma City featured three Pioneer PTQs, and their results provide a good snapshot of the metagame before Monday's bans of Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nexus of Fate. These bans will drastically alter the metagame, but the biggest immediate beneficiaries are other top decks in the field, like those that won last weekend. Mono-Black Aggro, for example, won one of the PTQs, and also put two copies into the Top 8 of the Pioneer Challenge on MTGO. Now with Simic decks knocked down, the black deck stands out as even better relative to the field, and makes a strong argument for being the best deck in the format.

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Making its own case is a more surprising strategy, or more accurately a card: Spell Queller, which was featured in the other two PTQ-winning decks last weekend. Friday's PTQ was won by a Bant Midrange deck with Collected Company and Oko, Thief of Crowns, but with Oko now gone this sort of midrange strategy is less attractive. My focus today will be on decks that use Spell Queller with its Spirit tribal synergies, which had tremendous success last weekend, both with and without Collected Company.

Winning Sunday's PTQ was a white-blue Spirits deck.

Nathan made the Top 8 on Friday before making some changes to the deck and going all the way on Sunday. That sort of consistency is something I look for when evaluating a new deck, because logic dictates it's much less likely that the good finish was due to random luck and more likely because the deck was inherently strong and well positioned in the metagame. To that point, another player put up a similar back-to-back performance with a Collected Company version of Spirits, with a finals loss on Saturday fueling another Top 8 run on Sunday.

Match My Tempo

There must be something good going on with the Spirits deck for it to have been so consistently successful last weekend, and it all adds up to me. The deck is actually somewhat similar to Mono-Black in that it's an aggressive and disruptive strategy, but with countermagic effects filling in for the discard. Where Mono-Black's creatures can be reanimated in the face of removal, Spirits offer their own form of resiliency with effects like those on Selfless Spirit and Rattlechains. While its individual creatures are not quite as cheap and aggressive as those in the black deck, together their synergies build to something greater than the sum of its parts, which helps it to overpower opponents in a way Mono-Black can't.

This is an important distinction given that unlike Mono-Black with its Castle Locthwain and recursive creatures, Spirits almost completely lacks card advantage and is thus poorly equipped for a long grind. It instead seeks to quickly build a battlefield and kill its opponent ASAP. It does this by building its disruption into its creatures, with nearly all of them—Spell Queller as the prime example—able to simultaneously disrupt the opponent while playing aggressively. This makes Brazen Borrower a boon to the deck as as removal spell paired with a body, and it's joined by Deputy of Detention and Reflector Mage as similar tempo tools.

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The Lord creatures Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle hold the deck together with some synergy and provide a real payoff for staying tribal. Another tribal payoff, used in the Azorius deck, is Nebelgast Herald, which pairs well with the strategy's many flash creatures. It's a useful tool in the racing situations the deck will often find itself in, whether it's holding back attackers or turning off blockers. The counterplay against creatures is particularly valuable given that most of its disruption is focused against spells.

In the Azorius version, Archangel Avacyn is a nice touch, fitting right into the flash theme and offering a major dose of power that helps to make up for the lack of Collected Company.

The success of Spirits last weekend is a good sign it's well positioned in the metagame, and it makes sense given recent developments, like the rise of Azorius Control. Spirit decks have historically been great against Azorius Control in Modern, back to Ondrej Strasky's GP Stockholm win last year with Bant Spirits in a field filled with Control. Azorius Control has risen to be one of the most popular decks online, and in fact after the ban is now the single most popular deck in the format. Some of its success was on the back of having good tools against green decks, but it surely has game against the wider field and I imagine will become even more popular.

Spirits won't have it quite as good in the control matchup without Aether Vial or Cavern of Souls, but on balance Azorius doesn't have its own great cards like Path to Exile, so creatures like Spell Queller will be even more devastating. These creatures are at their best here, with Selfless Spirit allowing the deck to operate with impunity against Supreme Verdict, and Mausoleum Wanderer being a major nuisance. The inclusion of a set of maindeck Teferi, Time Raveler in the Azorius deck is a nightmare for control, turning off countermagic as well as removal like Azorius Charm, Blessed Alliance and Settle the Wreckage, while Collected Company from the Bant decks presents it own challenges for control.

Sideboard Tech

Spirit decks will have much more to contend with than just control matchups, but it has plenty of tools to fight against the field, especially when it comes to its sideboard. One of the defining characteristics of Spirits in Modern was its deep and potent sideboard, a trait shared with many of the format's other white decks because of the color's great hosers. Many of these can also be found in Pioneer, and help to give Spirits a wealth of great sideboard cards.

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For example, Modern staple Rest in Peace could be found in Nathan Perigo's first attempt with Spirits, and seems like a great inclusion now that Arclight Phoenix is back on the radar after winning the MTGO Pioneer Challenge. Alternatively the deck can use Remorseful Cleric, a smart inclusion in Raymond Delmarter's Bant deck since it can be found by Collected Company.

Eidolon of Rhetoric is another powerful hoser found in Nathan's deck. It might not find any true Storm opponents to stop in Pioneer, but it does offer a good way to fight against Izzet Phoenix and the Lotus Field combo deck.

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Another hoser that plays well against Lotus Field is Lavinia, Azorius Renegade, found in many of the lists last weekend. It's effective for stopping the delve card-draw spells, like Dig Through Time in the Lotus Field deck and Treasure Cruise in Izzet Phoenix. Lavania offers a bit of added utility against Green Devotion decks, which should see a rise now that Simic was nerfed, by turning off their ability to ramp into planeswalkers.

One of the quietly most powerful sideboard hosers in Pioneer is Pithing Needle, along with Sorcerous Spyglass, both of which offer clean answers to planeswalkers. They aren't quite as valuable now with Oko, Thief of Crowns gone, but they'll still do good work against Green Devotion and potentially control decks heavy on planeswalkers.

Some more obscure sideboard cards also showed up in Top 8 Spirit decks from the weekend, revealing that it has some nice options to fight against whatever the metagame throws at it.

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Spirit of the Labyrinth is effective against anything that draws extra cards, and while it doesn't fly, it is a Spirit, so it offers some extra tribal synergy as well. It looks great against Izzet Phoenix, where it stops Treasure Cruise among other cards, and is another nice way to hose the Lotus Field deck.

Blessed Alliance is a versatile tool against aggressive decks, and with its life gain will be at its best against red aggro, which is a major winner from the banning of Oko. A similar tool that has appeared in lists online is Surge of Righteousness, which seems like an incredible card in the post-ban metagame, where Black Aggro is a major deck and Red Aggro is sure to be on the rise.

One extreme removal spell option is Sky Tether, which is only viable because the deck is filled with all flying creatures. It has plenty of downsides and won't deal with utility creatures with abilities, but it's quite efficient against brute force aggressive creatures, and was good enough to be a three-of in the sideboard of a 5-0 League list.

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Essence Flux is essentially a one-mana Counterspell against removal spells with an upside, and offers a nice surprise from the sideboard when the opponent is playing around Rattlechains and thinks the coast is clear. It will be at its best against control and especially against the cycle of removal spell Adventure creatures like Murderous Rider.

A very appealing hoser for Mono-Black decks is Apostle of Purifying Light, which they'll have a lot of trouble pushing past on the ground. Its ability to exile cards from graveyards makes it especially good against their recursive creatures, and means it could also fill in as a hoser against graveyard decks like Izzet Phoenix.

Which Version Should You Play?

Both Azorius and Bant Spirits had a good weekend, and it's not clear which version is truly better to play. Collected Company certainly makes Bant more powerful, but it pays for it with a loss of life from pain lands and less consistent mana. Azorius has a card pool deep enough to not require using Collected Company, but my instinct, and I assume that of many others, is to be greedy and play Collected Company because it's just so good in the strategy. Green also opens up a wider sideboard, with access to very powerful hosers including Knight of Autumn and Dromoka's Command, which might push it over the top.

At this point I'd recommend playing the full-power Bant deck, but a meta shift toward something like Mono-Red Aggro that punishes life loss could require a shifting away from shocklands to Azorius.

Sideboarding with Bant Spirits

Vs. Azorius Control

The maindeck of Spirits is well suited for beating control, but Reflector Mage needs to come out for something more effective. Two good options are Knight of Autumn, which can destroy Cast Out or Detention Sphere (or at least attack for 4), and Lavinia, Azorius Renegade to shut down Dig Through Time.

Vs. Green Devotion

Vs. Mono-Black Aggro

Spirits playing against aggressive decks like Mono-Black aggro can boil down to a race, and Settle the Wreckage from the sideboard will win them. Black's removal spells and ability to grind means they can also take a more controlling role and try to grind Spirits out, especially after sideboard when they have access to more removal—potentially even a sweeper in Cry of the Carnarium. You need to play carefully for your Spirits to protect each other.

Against Mono-Black Vampires, I'd bring in Pithing Needle to stop Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, which is their best card, over the third Brazen Borrower and a Rattlechains.

Vs. Red Aggro

Vs. Lotus Field Combo

Lotus Field Combo has been putting up surprisingly good results online since the bans, and could be shaping up as a true top-tier deck. That would be a great thing for Spirits, which has a lot of great disruption in the matchup and a nasty hoser after sideboard in Lavinia, Azorius Renegade.

Vs. Izzet Phoenix

Winning the Pioneer Challenge helped bring attention back to Izzet Phoenix, especially after the bans made people scramble to find new decks to play. A new trend for the deck is replacing Thing in the Ice for Young Pyromancer, which could not be better news for Spirits. It struggles with the sweeper-on-a-stick, but can easily fly over Elemental tokens or clean them up with Deputy of Detention, which also deals with Arclight Phoenix if they get out of hand.


Adam Yurchick

Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern and Eternal formats and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.

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