Definitive Guide to Pioneer Spirits: General Strategy

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Two CMC Spells

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Spirits are one of the best decks in the Pioneer format, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been piloting it since day 1. It was a natural transition from Modern, and Pioneer has proved to be a much better home for this ghastly-tempo based tribe. Now that Spirits has broken into tier one of the metagame, there are a lot of questions concerning the deck and I would like to offer a resource that new and experienced players can both use to better understand this tribe. The aim of this guide is to explain the general strategy of the deck, the differences between Azorius and Bant Spirits, the strengths and weaknesses of individual cards, and finally some general tips on sideboarding that are evergreen in a constantly shifting metagame. This article will be separated into multiple parts, to allow me to write more about this deck. Let’s begin by analyzing the differences between the two main versions of spirits, Azorius and Bant.


The Difference Between Azorius and Bant


While on the surface, these decks seem very similar, there are enough differences between the two decks to justify putting them in different categories. Most of the time they end up playing a similar gameplan, but when it comes to the finer details both decks are better at specific things that can make them the right choice for various metagames.

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Bant Spirits is viewed as the superior version of the deck right now, but for the longest time, UW Spirits was considered the correct way to build the deck. Both methods are valid approaches but attack the meta in different ways. Many of these differences can be boiled down to personal preference, and what deck you believe to be better positioned.

Link to Decklist

The manabase is one of the biggest discrepancies between the two decks and shows the unique ways each deck tries to maximize itself. UW Spirits aims to maximize it’s manabase by using cards like Mutavault to generate virtual card advantage, and prevent the deck from flooding out in the lategame. Bant Spirits does not have the luxury of playing creature lands in it’s seventy-five but gets to play significantly better dual lands. The departure in manabases is all due to one card, Collected Company.

Collected Company is a very powerful card that can slam a game closed, or bring the pilot back from an otherwise unwinnable position. While CoCo is powerful, it’s power comes with a restriction of playing cards that it can grab. If there is a 4 cmc or higher creature that is really good, or you were to identify that maindecking a spell such as Mystical Dispute is really good, you would be better suited to playing UW Spirits. Oftentimes it’s not necessary to venture outside of Bant, due to creature options being almost as powerful as spells, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you construct your deck to attack the metagame.

Finally, the last major difference between the decks is variance. Collected Company is a card, that while powerful, is impossible to plan for. You don’t know what creatures are in your top 6 cards, or even that there are creatures in the top 6. As a player who tries to minimize variance in my gameplay, Collected Company is a hard card for me to play with personally. The difference can be summed up between tactics and strategy as pointed out by TheRift289 on the Spirits discord.

Image result for strategy vs tactics

“Strategy is subjective and flexible plans, tactics are concrete small decisions. Knowing when to CoCo or whether or not you should play out Nebelgast Herald is not correct or incorrect, it is a strategic choice. CoCo will never really be a tactic since you literally don’t know what the outcome will be, but it can be a very strategic card to play optimally. Azorius has tighter margins, and feels like there are more lines that can actually be calculated to completion, like chess endgames. If there is an actual “correct” sequence to a known outcome, that is a tactic. If there is instead a flexible plan to establish a target position, that is strategy.”

The difference between tactics and strategy is the reason why these decks play so differently despite sharing so many cards. Maximizing Collected Company is not a matter of getting lucky, but by maneuvering yourself into positions where the card will be good no matter what are in your top 6. UW Spirits, on the other hand, gets to play with more information than it’s counterpart which gives it a greater degree of control in how it’s plays can be maximized. When Collected Company is good, you will often do better anything that a UW player could do in the same turn, but there is a failure rate associated with it that UW does not have to concern itself with.

Another key aspect between the decks is the ways in which they bluff and gain card advantage. Azorius is a deck that can bluff early and often, through counterspells and Petty Theft and can gain tempo over the opponent in the developing stages. Bant, however, gets significantly more powerful once it reaches 4 mana and can threaten Collected Company. In a drawn out game CoCo is the card you always want to be top-decking.

When is it correct to play one deck over the other? Bant is a great deck for an unknown metagame because the raw power of CoCo can claw the deck out of tight spots. In a known metagame, UW Spirits has access to many more cards that can be used to precisely attack specific strategies. UW is also a deck that can excel in the developing stages, due to not having high cmc cards stuck in its hand for a while, while Bant has a more threatening late game. Ultimately, though, the choice of which deck you play is a matter of personal preference. I dislike Collected Company, and the way Bant plays, but I know many people who swear by the top 6 cards of their library. Choose what is correct for you and your playstyle, but be aware of the other style and it’s potential.


Gameplan of Spirits


Spirits is a tempo oriented tribal deck that aims to disrupt the opponent through the creature suite, allowing them to establish an evasive clock while setting the opponent behind. Tempo as a strategy is the idea of trading resources for time and can involve giving up resources such as cards, to get the turns needed to close out the game. Spirits can win on the barest of margins, and many games end with the pilot having no cards in hand, but just enough power on board for lethal. It is a tight balancing act playing both control and aggro at the same time, but balancing them correctly gives the Spirits player incredible command over the game.

When playing Spirits, one thing you constantly want to be aware of is your clock. Every turn of the game, it is important to assess how much damage you have on board, and how many turns it will take to kill your opponent. Holding up a Spell Queller can be important, but if you can kill your opponent one or even two turns quicker by casting a lord, it may be ok to go shields down for a turn and swing. It can be shocking how fast Spirits can assemble a board state. On one turn there may be 4 power on the board, only for the following turn to have them swinging for 12 damage due to flashing in other spirits and casting lords.

Knowing when to hold back is also important, as there are many matchups where tapping out can lead to a huge tempo loss, or just outright losing to a combo. Spirits aren’t the fastest aggro deck in the format, but we make up for being a turn slower by being able to slow our opponent’s down as well. When playing spirits, it is important to not only assess how many turns it takes for us to kill our opponent, but also how many turns it will take for our opponent to kill us.

Who’s the Beatdown?

Going back to the famous article “Who’s the Beatdown?” by Mike Flores, spirits is a deck that has to constantly live on both sides of the line, and may even have to assess who is the beatdown midmatch and change roles. A recent example came up for me in a match against Mono-Black Aggro. I had a hand with a lot of lords, and the potential to kill as soon as turn 5. But on turn 2 I was chump-blocking both of my creatures to try and slow down my opponent who opened on two Knight of the Ebon Legion. I traded 2 spirits for 1 knight, dropped to 6 life by turn 4, but I was able to stabilize by making blocks unfavorable for my opponent, and swung for 25 damage a few turns later. Playing the control player for those first few turns bought me enough time to stabilize and make the comeback.

In most cases, it’s not going to be as cut and dry as to who the beatdown is. On one turn you may be holding up a Spell Queller to try and counter something relevant, only for it to be cast as a 2/3 with flash the following turn. You could be the beatdown until they wipe your board, but then you may be forced to become the control deck to prevent them from capitalizing. This is why it is so important to be aware of how many turns it will take for each deck to win, as that can better inform your decisions, and who the beatdown is.


Opening Hand Analysis


When the entire course of a game can be decided based off the top 10 cards of your library, it is extremely important to be able to identify what hands can execute a game of Magic. When looking at the next few examples decide for yourself what hands are keepable or not before continuing, and then I’ll discuss what factors go into an opening hand of Spirits.

This hand is a very easy keep. Mausoleum Wanderer is one of the most powerful cards in the deck in the opening stages of the game, and whenever there are multiple copies it is worth paying attention. If there are any lords in the hand, it goes from great to bonkers, and is what can enable some of the most common turn 4 kills in this deck. 2 Wanderer’s, 2 Lords, and one other spirit is the minimum needed to kill the opponent on turn 4. Even though there is no white in this opener, this hand has a very clear gameplan that it can execute.

It’s pretty nebulous, but this is probably a mulligan. With 4 lands (and more likely to be in your top few cards) flooding is a huge concern, and the cards in hand don’t really do well when you’ve flooded out. When keeping a hand like this, either your clock needs to be really good or your disruption needs to be good. In this case the disruption is largely relegated to Wanderer, and maybe Rattlechains if you can stop a removal spell, and the clock is pretty slow swinging for 6 damage if nothing goes wrong. Of course, the top cards of your deck could make this hand amazing, but by itself it doesn’t do enough.

This hand is very similar to the previous one, but I believe that this one is more keepable than the last due to the much better disruption that is available. Against creature decks, Nebelgast Herald can shut them down, and Spell Queller is one of the best pieces of disruption in the format. If you know your opponent is on a faster deck, I’d probably ship this hand but this makes a lot more sense to keep over the other.

Tough call, but there is a lot of potential here. Two Collected Company is obviously very powerful, but with 2 lands you could be waiting several turns to get there. If I were to keep this hand, I feel like I would have to become the control player. CoCo is great card advantage, but if I fall behind so fast that I can’t cast it then I just mulligan’d to 5. Aggressively trading off spirits to buy turns to find lands is a sketchy proposition, but the promise of two Collected Companies if I survive long enough might be worth it.

On first glance, this hand seems great until you notice all of the cumbersome details. There is no green in hand, which means CoCo is stranded until you find the right land. But that’s not a deal breaker, as you will very often find your 3rd color by the time you can cast CoCo. What’s potentially more concerning is the Glacial Fortress not allowing the Mausoleum Wanderer to be cast on turn 1. This strands Wanderer in the developing turns as it doesn’t fit the curve anymore. I’d ultimately keep this hand, as it still has a gameplan if you don’t find a green source, and you have enough lands to cast everything else in the deck. It is awkward, however, and could be punishing.


Conclusion


Spirits is a deck that is easy to learn but difficult to master. I’m still learning new things about the deck and I’ve been playing it for 3 years straight. If you’ve been considering picking up spirits, or are currently playing it I hope this article helped. The next part of this strategy guide for spirits will go over all of the commonly played cards (even including more fringe cards like Curious Obsession) and will discuss why they are good, tips when playing them, and how to sideboard with them.

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4 thoughts on “Definitive Guide to Pioneer Spirits: General Strategy

  1. Awesome Guide, thx so much for this insight on how Pioneer Spirits Works. Can’t wait for your next post

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