Welcome to part three 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. Last week was one CMC spells and this week we will be covering two. Without further ado, let’s talk about some ghosts.
Spirits are often described as a tricky strategy, something that is hard to play around, and a lot of that has to do with this card. Rattlechains enables this deck to play a Fairies style gameplan, and punish the opponent whether they play their best spell or their worst spell. Rattlechains is great both early and late game and is an integral part of this strategy’s success. This card has a wall of text on it, so let’s discuss all of the different modes that Rattlechains fulfills.
The first and probably most important mode is simply being a curve filler. Snapcaster stats aren’t exactly impressive, but most games that you have it in your opening hand this will be your turn two play. It’s important for a tribal deck to get a board presence and swinging for two every turn will add up. If you know you need to play the controlling role, Rattlechains is also a great card to throw out on their endstep and start putting some pressure on the opponent. The best use case for Rattlechains is when it deals enough damage to an opponent that it forces them to act prematurely.
Sending Rattlechains out on curve is also really good for this deck because it now means we get to threaten a lot more cards. Rattlechains on their end step, third land go is a powerful line because it can represent any card in the deck barring Collected Company. Spell Queller, Selfless Spirit, Mausoleum Wanderer, and Lords are all instant speed options now.
It may be tempting to hold onto Rattlechains in matchups where you know there will be a ton of removal spells, but realistically it’s better to get a clock down early that forces your opponent to use a removal spell on Rattlechains instead of trying to bait them later in the game. The truth about this card is that it’s not great at protecting other spirits. Two mana is inefficient in the face of the Fatal Pushes of the world, and it is very easy to respond to the enters the battlefield trigger. When Rattlechains does successfully protect another spirit, it’s an incredibly powerful two for one, but I view this more like an upside for drawing this card late rather than a key component of the card.
Rattlechains does a lot for this deck, but there are many cases where you can side it out for more impactful cards. A Rest in Peace on turn 2 does a lot more against certain decks than Rattlechains would, and when it’s not as important for the deck to be curving out Rattlechains loses some value. I still wouldn’t advise cutting all copies of this spirit because on an empty board, it is one of the best things you can flash in.
Selfless Spirit is a much simpler card than Rattlechains, but that doesn’t make it less important in the deck. Selfless fills the same role as Rattlechains of being an effective curve filler, while also having a lot of upside in many other scenarios. The main upside is obviously trading 1 for 1 with a board wipe, but as of late, the board wipes that people have been playing have changed how good this effect is. Cards such as Languish and Hour of Devastation have begun seeing more play in response to spirits being at the top of the metagame, diminishing the value of this card. As long as they aren’t playing these cards, Selfless Spirit can provide incredible value against traditional sweepers, and force your opponent into tough situations. If you have identified Selfless Spirit as being key to winning the game, protecting it for as long as possible is important, and not attacking into an open Azorius Charm can save you headaches down the line.
Another potent use of the card is when you need to block. Selfless giving your entire board indestructible means you can stack multiple creatures that would otherwise die, in order to kill a large threat from the opponent. Keep in mind that Selfless Spirit can also be assigned to blocks, however, if you want indestructible you will need to sacrifice before damage is dealt. This means several different things, some less obvious than others. Selfless will not deal damage to the opposing creature so don’t try to kill anything this way. This usually stops the damage, but if the creature has trample it will count as if the creature wasn’t blocked at all and tramples over as if it had 0 toughness. An important trick to know is if you block a creature with lifelink and then sacrifice Selfless, they will not gain any life because their creature did not deal any combat damage. When trying to race something like a Dream Trawler this can be the difference between winning or losing.
Outside of when to sacrifice Selfless Spirit, the most interesting discussion around the card is deciding when it is a good card for the deck. If sweepers such as Supreme Verdict fall out of favor than Selfless loses a lot of value. In a combo metagame that doesn’t have sweepers (or the sweepers present are the aforementioned ones) that’s another reason to not play this card. Selfless Spirit is still a powerful card in many scenarios, but it is a flexible slot that can be tuned to fit the metagame. Currently, a lot of builds are playing a split of Selfless Spirit and Remorseful Cleric as an attempt to respond to a meta filled with Dimir Inverter and Sultai Delirium. Most of the time, it’ll be correct to still play 4 Selfless Spirit because it makes blocking infinitely easier, but it is not a guaranteed slot like it used to be.
I played a lot of spirits before M19, and as much as I tried to make it a thing in Modern, spirits really wasn’t a deck until this card was printed. It solved our two greatest issues of 1.) Having a 2 CMC lord for the deck and 2.) Giving us an excellent blocker against aggressive strategies. Before Supreme Phantom we were forced to mess with cards such as Metallic Mimic that just could not do the same as a traditional lord. Aggressive strategies also used to be one of the worst matchups for the deck, but curving Supreme into Supreme is easily one of the best answers to those decks.
Supreme Phantom is a vitally important card to the deck, but doesn’t have a lot to discuss about it. It’s a good lord and that was all the deck needed to become a contender in the metagame. Keep in mind that with a Mausoleum Wanderer in play, Supreme Phantom will give it a +2/+2 boost, one for triggering Wanderer, and another for its static effect. This can be especially relevant when trying to decide whether to play a Phantom before combat, or holding onto it as a flash threat (with Rattlechains help) to become a suprise +2/+2 boost for Wanderer to counter a key spell or make surprise blocks. This is only something to consider if your clock doesn’t change whether you play it main phase or on their end step.
This starts us moving away from our core of two drops and into the realm of flex slots. I’ve got 3, but the meat of the discussion surrounds our first card.
Remorseful Cleric is a maindeckable way to deal with graveyards, and in the maindeck it serves the job well. Against decks where Tormod’s Crypt doesn’t matter, a 2/1 flyer is serviceable, but when you need to exile their graveyard you’ll know. Identifying the meta where this card is good is important, but what people really want to know is whether to run this over Rest in Peace.
Simply put, Remorseful Cleric is less narrow and therefore less effective. Rest in Peace is an effect that will put an end to a ton of different decks singlehandedly, whereas Cleric will only stop a deck momentarily. When you need graveyard hate, Cleric is even a worse Tormod’s Crypt as it may come down later than you need it and can be killed prematurely. The 2/1 body is the only reason it can be a main deck card in the first place especially with Collected Company, but if graveyard is a big enough presence for you to consider this card in the main I’d highly recommend playing at least two copies of Rest in Peace in the sideboard.
Spirit of the Labyrinth
The other two cards I’d like to briefly mention are the disruptive spirits from both Theros sets. Spirit of the Labyrinth is a card that doesn’t have much place in the current metagame, but is always something to keep an eye on. The 3/1 body seems appealing at first until you realize it has no flying. If Spirit of the Labyrinth were to actually have an evasive keyword, I believe it would see a lot more play than it currently does. I have mainly found use for this card in older formats, primarily Legacy where flashing this in response to a Brainstorm is game ending, and in Modern when Faithless Looting decks were all the rage. Pioneer doesn’t have anything quite on that level yet, but don’t forget this potential sleeper if things do shape up that way.
Eidolon of Obstruction is much newer to the format, and is a card that isn’t impressive right now, but may have a chance to shine in the future. First Strike is an underrated keyword, and this will do well with lords, but we’re only ever playing this if Planeswalkers become a significant threat. Out of all the walkers that threaten us, Liliana, the Last Hope seems like it was tailor made to crush spirits. (And it probably was considering it comes from Eldritch Moon). Unfortunately for our obstructing friend, Liliana just becomes a four mana walker that will still decimate our 2/1. The tempo gain can be significant, however, and against decks like Mono-Green Walkers it can seriously hamper their game plan unless they have a Nykthos. What this card shows me is that what we really want is a Thalia reprint in Pioneer, do it you won’t WotC.
As much as I would love a Thalia reprint, this is the closest thing we’ve got and it makes me want Thalia even more now. Tithe Taker isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t accomplish what we want. Taxing opponents for playing on our end step may not matter when we are trying to flash in things on their end step that they may respond to. Thanks to the instant speed nature of the deck, the taxing doesn’t come up very frequently. The upside of a 1/1 spirit flyer is much better than First Strike is on Thalia, but Thalia punishes a much larger swath of decks which is why she’s so good in the first place.
The obvious parallel to this card is Curious Obsession, and despite the higher mana cost there are few reasons as to why you may want this card over Obsession. The most important clause on the card is lifelink, and in an environment where it’s more important to drag race, connecting once with this card means a lot more than connecting with Curious Obsession. Not having to attack is also great, as you can double spell with this and not watch it fall off at the end of turn. Ultimately, the extra mana is asking a lot, but there might be a time in the metagame where aggro is running rampant and the amount of removal hasn’t adjusted yet, in which this card can shine.
Rally of Wings
This is a card that I totally forgot about until some lists showed up with it in the 5-0 dumps. Suddenly the draw to UW Spirits was because of this card. I’ve always been pretty skeptical of this card, and after playing it for a little I’m still not impressed. This is a card that demands you be in the lead, or at the very least have a sizable board presence to be worth it. The reward for doing so is potentially increasing your clock by one turn or more, and being able to kill your opponent out of nowhere. I don’t feel like this is a card that Spirits needs, however, as the deck is already pretty good at creating a board presence out of nowhere
There is a lot to cover here. Unfortunately, the above Counterspell is not in our repertoire, and if it was there we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion.
This is easily one of the best counterspells in the format and hits a card in almost every single top deck. Even against decks like Mono-Red that you wouldn’t expect this to be good, this can still counter cards like Torbran. (Not saying you should board it against Mono-Red, I just wanted to make a point). Pioneer is a slower format and needs more expensive spells to close out the game which is part of the reason this card is great. This card will always gain you at least two mana, and is fantastic in the right matchups. Unless the format starts to streamline decks to the point where 4 CMC spells become very rare, I’ll be happy playing 2-3 copies of this in my sideboard.
It’s Essence Scatter but better! Essence Scatter is a card that has already seen some play in Pioneer, and Essence Capture is a card that works incredibly well with our evasive tempo strategy. UU casting cost is not negligble, but typically you’ll be casting this spell by turn 3 or later which gives a good chance of having the correct mana. Essence Capture is good when Essence Scatter is good, and right now that isn’t the case. There are certainly a lot of creature spells in Pioneer, but a lot of the the must answer threats that aren’t are typically four cmc or higher which can be answered by Disdainful Stroke. As nice as the +1/+1 counter is, this is a counterspell first and when Disdainful Stroke is a better counterspell overall, there isn’t much reason to play this card. That doesn’t mean this card is bad, this just isn’t the right place for it currently.
It’s Negate but better! Dovin’s Veto fills the same role that Negate always did, which was primarily countering board wipes, planeswalkers, and any other must answer noncreature cards. The uncounterability of this card is certainly nice but is not the reason this card should be considered for your deck. Currently, in Pioneer, the role that Dovin’s Veto would usually play is currently being superseded by Disdainful Stroke as that card can still counter the board wipes and the planeswalkers, but can also hit the creature win conditions such as Walking Ballista and Inverter of Truth. As long as Pioneer is a creature dominated format, Veto won’t be making the rounds, but there’s no denying that this card can be good.
There are many more two mana conditional counterspells, but I find most of them to be bad a majority of the time or just simply aren’t right for this deck. If there is a two mana counterspell that you’ve been having success with let me know in the comments below.
Just like counterspells, there are plenty of removal options and none of them are nearly as good as Path to Exile. Let’s talk about the Pioneer options.
Declaration in Stone
Easily the closest card to Path to Exile on a comparison basis, but this card is obviously worse in a lot of ways. First, two mana cards are hard to fit into this deck thus these cards tend to be relegated to the sideboard. Second, giving the opponent clues is a serious downside and can draw your opponent an out they otherwise wouldn’t have. Finally, the real thing stopping this card from seeing more play is sorcery speed. The clues aside, this card is still really good. Two mana unconditional exile is really hard to come by, and potentially 2 or even 3 for 1’ing the opponent is worth them having to crack their clues, and thus not affect the board state. Sorcery speed clashes with one of the main angles of this deck, and at two mana it is asking for a lot more. If go wide aggressive strategies become popular, however, this card is a slam dunk against them.
Remember what I was saying about unconditional two mana exile removal in Pioneer? This fits the bill and is even an instant to boot. Reality Shift is great against almost everything except aggro decks, the one deck you typically really want removal against. Declaration in Stone is good against aggro because the tokens it gives them forces them to spend mana to get value. This gives them a 2/2 in exchange for their creature that could become something worse at any time. If aggro strategies are on the downswing, but you identify that it is still important to have a removal spell, such as against creature combo, this has a lot of potential.
On the other end of the 1W removal spectrum we have Seal Away. It’s conditional as opposed to unconditional. It’s instant speed as opposed to sorcery. It’s not a permanent answer, but it doesn’t give anything valuable to the opponent. Seal Away will be hitting attacking creatures 95% of the time, and is a card you should consider if aggressive strategies are giving you pause, especially when they get chonkier and you can get rid of one high value card. This is a metagame choice, and in a meta currently filled with combo I don’t see this being a good option, but it is something to consider.
This isn’t removal in the strictest sense, but it’s flexible and that’s a key aspect of the card. Each mode has a lot of utility and can work with each other in interesting ways. Preventing all damage can protect against most sources of red removal (watch out for Stomp) and can even save your neck in a pinch. Sacrificing an enchantment has become especially relevant with Theros: Beyond Death, and sniping a Heliod in response to Ballista seems decent. Putting a +1/+1 counter will not only help with attacking and blocking, but it also goes well with the final mode, which is, unfortunately, my main holdup of the card. Spirits, on average, have high power and low toughness meaning that in order to remove something you may have to 2 for 1 yourself. The counter helps, but a 3/2 still dies to most creatures. The draw to this card is, of course, the flexibility but it comes at the cost of playing a noncreature spell in a Bant shell hurting your CoCo hits. This is a good card that has many reasons to simply not be played in a spirits deck.
This is a card that I love to play. Blessed Alliance is not as direct as many of the other options on this list, but none scale quite as well. Gaining 4 life and making your opponent sacrifice a creature is almost as good as a Settle the Wreckage in certain scenarios, and the versatility of being able to cast it early game helps keep you alive longer. Untapping two creatures almost never comes up, but maybe giving your creatures surprise vigilance could be strong. If hexproof strategies become common, alongside aggro Blessed Alliance can put in good work.
This is a card that has been seeing some play in UW Control mainly for the modes of bounce target creature and draw a card. While they are incapable of taking advantage of the first mode, spirits could completely swing a game around with it. In my experience, however, this card hasn’t impressed me. There were very few times where I wanted to give my creatures lifelink, drawing a card for two mana was almost never correct, and bouncing an attacking creature only delays the problem. On paper, this card seems perfect for the archetype, but in practice it falls flat in many different ways.
There are of course many other removal spells available at this slot, but talking about all of them would be difficult and time consuming. Suffice to say, most other removal at this cmc isn’t particularly attractive unless we are talking about color hate cards such as Devout Decree which depends on a lot of different factors to see play.
There are a lot of different cards to talk about, and I only have so much time. The two mana slot is crowded in this deck, unlike one mana which meant that even though there are a lot of potential cards to choose from, most end up being sideboard or surprise picks because the core of Supreme/Rattlechains/Selfless is usually enough to find success. If there is a two mana card that you have been enjoying, let me know in the comments below as there is a whole format out there that still has many secrets left to uncover. I’ll be tackling part 4 of this series, three CMC cards hopefully by next week.
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