Welcome to part two of my discussion on Pioneer Spirits. In the first part of this series I discussed the general strategy of the deck, the differences between Bant and UW Spirits, and what opening hands to keep. Now, I would like to devote my time towards discussing all of the individual cards each deck plays and what roles they can serve when it comes to building your deck and formulating your gameplan. I intend to cover a lot of cards which means that this section of the guide will be broken up into multiple articles, one for each cmc. Without further ado, let’s talk about some ghosts.
People like to point to Spell Queller as being the reason for the decks power, but I’d argue that Mausoleum Wanderer is just as important, if not more important for the tribes success as a whole. Mausoleum Wanderer introduced an extremely powerful one drop for a tribe that has very slim pickings at this cmc. (We’ve been desperate enough to try cards like Topplegeist before and it hasn’t gone well, see more on that later). Mausoleum Wanderer is so good because it does both things the deck needs, it provides a clock and disruption.
One of the simplest uses of Mausoleum Wanderer is as deterrent for removal spells. Just the simple presence of Mausoleum Wanderer makes opponents far less likely to use their removal early, as it will usually just trade for the one drop. Besides that, Wanderer can delay board wipes, combo turns, and counterspells just by existing. Most opponents don’t want to give the spirits player the choice of whether or not to counter their spell, which usually leads to it getting delayed. But delaying the spell doesn’t mean it’s answered, and a good opponent will play around having to pay 2+ mana for their key spell.
Wanderer has several tricks under it’s sleeve that makes it a very potent threat in the deck. One of the simplest things you can do is cast a Supreme Phantom on turn 2, letting you hit with a 3/3, and holding up at minimum a Spell Pierce for as long as you have Phantom. While casting the lords last is usually the correct line, with Mausoleum Wanderer (especially multiples) sooner is often better.
Wanderer also works incredibly well when all of your spirits have flash. If they are casting a must counter instant/sorcery, flashing in a spirit might throw off the math for their turn, and even more so if you can flash in a lord. This begs the question of when to counter with Mausoleum Wanderer, and it’s a really intricate subject that isn’t easy to answer.
If you have a lot of lords in hand and know that your Wanderer will be your strongest threat do your best to save it until protecting your lord becomes more important than protecting Wanderer. If your opponent is playing a combo deck, try to identify at what point in the combo they will have the least amount of mana and constrain them. If they are forced to pay the tax to resolve their spell, they may not be able to follow it up with the finisher. Wanderer is a strong card but will only delay a spell at best. This is why it is important to pair Wanderer with stronger sources of disruption, such as a Rest in Peace, so that Wanderer can be defense against your opponent’s interaction. And while they are trying to figure out how to pay through the tax, you can pressure their life total.
This dichotomy of being both a reactive tool and proactive threat is really the core of the spirits archetype in general. Wanderer is an integral component of the deck, and is key to the archetypes success. Even in metagames where there are few instants and sorceries, it can still be a 3/3 on turn 2.
Fun fact: If Mausoleum Wanderer was the only card in the deck it would consistently kill by turn 4.
A fairly recent addition to the Spirits deck, and a surprisingly good one to boot. Ninety percent of the time Sailor is simply a 1/1 with flash, which helps to fill out the lower cmc of the deck, but ten percent of the time Sailor can absolutely run away with the game by activating it’s draw ability each turn and drowning the opponent in card advantage.
Innately having flash is a key component as to why Spectral Sailor can be so good for the deck. Mausoleum Wanderer and Nebelgast Herald benefit from other spirits entering the battlefield, and having a one mana way to trigger them is a nice trick to have available. If your opponent chooses to do nothing on their turn, Sailor is a very respectable card to flash in and start threatening your opponent with the card draw.
For just a 1/1 with flash, this thing has a surprising amount of play to it. Sometimes you may have this in your opener and choose not to cast it on turn 1 because you want to guarantee tapping another creature with Nebelgast Herald. Another time would be to save it to flash in after a Supreme Verdict to begin refueling. Most of the time, however, you’ll be casting this dude on turn 1 to begin putting on the pressure (small as it may be).
Because of the base case of this card being a 1/1 the majority of the time, Sailor is typically the card you’ll be siding out. You want to be careful when cutting one drops from your aggro deck, which is why it is so important to never cut Wanderer, but Sailor is such a meh card most of the time that it’s ok to move it. Sailor will be a card that you’ll want to keep around, primarily when you believe that you’ll be able to activate it’s ability at least once in a game and hopefully more. Against control, midrange, and even the mirror this card can do really well when the board is removed/stalled out. Sailor is a simple card, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it isn’t deserving of it’s slot on the list.
When the first Player’s Tours lists came back with Permeating Mass in the sideboard we all thought it was joke that managed to make it to the big stage. This is a weird spirit that has never seen play before, and didn’t really seem all that powerful. It wasn’t until we started playing with it ourselves that we realized it was an incredible blocker, and is one of the strongest defensive tools in the format. Any ground-based creature can easily get walled off by Permeating Mass, and losing all of their abilities and becoming a Permeating Mass can be a huge downside to cards like Soul-Scar Mage and Knight of the Ebon Legion.
As long as these cards are consistent players in the format, Permeating Mass is a great choice to combat these aggressively slanted decks that Pioneer features very prominently. Mass is specifically good against Mono-Red, Mono-Black, Mono-White Devotion Izzet Ensoul, Orzhov Auras, and Golgari Stompy just to name a few. If it can block it rocks, and is a good option to have in the sideboard.
Spectral Sailor was a very important card to print for the archetype because it provided a serviceable one drop that could help smooth out the curve in the early turns. Topplegeist is an option that has existed since the archetype first became popular, but it has never been a good card in the deck for many different reasons. To start off, Spectral Sailor is better as a 1/1 flyer both because of flash and costing blue mana. White is a harder color to hit on turn one, and flash gives Sailor much more play. Tapping creatures is also much more irrelevant for this deck, as we typically just fly over the competition. With flash, this card can actually throw off combat math, but that is a 2 card combo much in the same way Spectral Sailor and Nebelgast Herald is a 2 card combo. Finally, Delirium was already hard to enable in the Modern version of the deck which was packing fetchlands and artifacts in Aether Vial. Pioneer Spirits doesn’t even have 4 types in the entire deck making this a pretty pointless and obsolete card.
Modern Spirits is primarily driven by the inclusion of Noble Hierarch, enabling early Quellers and Collected Companies. Pioneer has a few one cmc dork options available but there are multiple reasons as to why no successful lists are playing Gilded Goose and it’s ilk. First, the manabase is too difficult to make a turn 1 green spell followed by a blue white deck unfeasible. The current version of Bant Spirits works because it splashes for Collected Company only playing 12 green sources. Without fetchlands, it’s impossible to consistently cast a mana dork and follow it up with Spirits.
Another reason to not play Goose or Elves is that they aren’t anyhere near the power level of Noble Hierarch. When playing Modern Bant Spirits, I consider Noble Hierarch a far more important card to the deck than Collected Company. On top of this, adding less powerful dorks weakens the strength of Collected Company. Currently, the deck has many great hits and a floor of Spectral Sailor is still much better than a floor of Llanowar Elves. Unless the mana improves dramatically, and the format speeds up to Modern levels, there is no reason to play these accelerants.
Sky Tether/Oppressive Rays
I decided to group these two enchantments together because they fill extremely similar roles. Sky Tether is the closest thing we have to Path to Exile, being able to stop any creature at any stage in the game. Making them lose flying and unable to attack both increases our clock and decreases theirs which is exactly what you want a removal spell to do. The only issue is when you need it to remove a creature that is using activated abilities such as Jace, Vrynn’s Prodigy or a mana dork.
This is where Oppressive Rays can fill that niche, stopping these creatures from being useful while still being able to hamper attackers/blockers. Oppressive Rays is, of course, nowhere near as good at stopping these creatures. Many people will still choose to pay 3 to attack with Uro for example. But if Llanowar Elves is a major player in your local meta Oppressive Rays can disrupt them hard enough for it to almost count as a removal spell.
These enchantments are good options when in need of removal but are not necessary. Nebelgast Herald can largely fill the role of these cards while still being an attacker. These are the kinds of cards you put in your sideboard/mainboard if you are expecting to see a heavy aggro meta and need efficient options to slow them down. As enchantments instead of hard removal, these cards suffer all the same flaws that O-Ring effects usually have to deal with, but nonetheless they are things to consider in the constantly chaging Pioneer landscape.
Unsummon is a card that I am personally a fan of, but also completely understand why it isn’t played often. Unsummon is purely a tempo card, and can be used in very tricky ways that other removal spells can’t do. But it is hard card disadvantage which can really hurt if you aren’t able to capitalize on the tempo it provides. Bouncing a creature with a powerful ETB such as Niv-Mizzet can also be really dangerous, because replaying it will grant them even more advantage.
In what situations can Unsummon be good? Primarily, Unsummon is at it’s best when it is bouncing high casting cost creatures with no etbs. Cards like Glorybringer, Questing Beast, and Rankle can be really thrown off by an Unsummon in a much stronger fashion than a lone Nebelgast Herald could. Unsummon is also a cheap way to interact with creature based combos such as Walking Ballista/Heliod and delay them for a turn.
Rapid Hybridization is similar to Unsummon in that it is one blue mana for a removal spell, but the similarities end there. Rapid Hybridization is straight-up removal for one mana, which matters a lot when synergy is important in the metagame. An example of a synergistic metagame would be one with a lot of tribal decks or creature combos. Turning their Supreme Phantom or their Walking Ballista that’s about to combo off into a 3/3
Elk Frog Lizard for one mana can be powerful. Spirits specifically can also work around the downside of giving them a creature by simply flying over it.
This isn’t a strict removal spell, however. Unlike Fatal Push, this is useless if your opponent is curving out with 2/1’s or plays a Mulldrifter that doesn’t care about removal. A 3/3, while not the worst thing, is still dangerous and Spirits is pretty bad at blocking without lords. But nothing in the format can compete with one cmc destroy any creature, which is something to keep in mind for when it is needed.
As the standard from a few years ago was able to show us, Curious Obsession is a powerful card in the right deck. Spirits fits the perfect mold for Obsession, being an evasive creature deck focused on tempo, but has much stronger tools at its disposal that Mono-Blue Tempo did not. It is a high-risk high-reward card, being able to run away with the game when opposing interaction is dealt with, but is a terrible top deck to an empty board. Spirits is also a little awkward with it in ways that the original tempo deck was not.
Comparing Spirits to the Mono-Blue Tempo deck of yore will show that we have much less efficient ways to protect our spirits than they were able to do in their deck. Our best option for protecting the queen is with a two mana Rattlechains, unlike a Dive Down or Siren Stormtamer. What this means is that tapping even just one land to cast Obsession can make the deck go shields down, and leaves the creature open to get 2 for 1’d. And while we can play the aforementioned cards, it begins to dilute our main gameplan of casting Spirits and buffing them with lords.
Spirits also has a lot of cards that sacrifice themselves, which doesn’t pair well with an aura. Mausoleum Wanderer and Selfless Spirit are sometimes the only targets on board, which makes it feel bad when you have to sacrifice them to save yourself from a Shatter the Sky. This, combined with the less efficient protection makes Obsession a more awkward card in this deck than it deserves to be. When they are on board protecting another creature with Obsession, they are some of the best protection in the format, but as targets for the enchantment they are sub-par.
Despite all of this, Curious Obsession can still be a very powerful card just one that you have to be more careful with. It comes down a lot sooner than a Collected Company and is fantastic tech in a metagame filled with few removal spells. Obsession is also one of the best tools to help the deck lean into an extremely strong tempo game, by giving the player enough options to deal with anything.
When searching for cards that say “spirit” on them, this is something that always pops up and piques some interest. For one mana we can effectively get a Dive Down that permanently buffs our creature, and can even do some really sneaky tricks. Obviously, that’s not an accurate comparison, but Essence Flux is certainly a weird card that is on theme for the deck.
There are many reasons as to why this card is not seeing play, and chief among them is that this is pure card disadvantage. No Spirit in the deck really has an ETB that is equivalent to drawing a card besides Spell Queller, and targeting Queller with this only changes what spell can be trapped. The +1/+1 counter is nice, but is not a card, and dodging a removal spell only counts as trading 1 for 1. It is efficient, but doesn’t do enough for the deck to really be worth it. I’d much rather see this card in a Modern list featuring Soulherder.
Even after writing about 10 different one mana cards that you could potentially play, there was still 5 or so more that I wanted to talk about but didn’t have the time to cover. While the maindeck may only play two cards currently, there is a wide pool of options available for the deck that can all provide powerful effects given the right metagame (except for you Topplegeist). Next week I’ll begin my discussion on two CMC cards, and if there is a card that you want me to cover or you feel I missed an important card today let me know and I’ll try to respond in the comments below.
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