Welcome to part four 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 two CMC spells and this week we will be covering three. Without further ado, let’s talk about some ghosts.
When people think of spirits they think of this card. Spell Queller is one of the best tempo cards ever printed and has many different lines of play available to it. How you play Spell Queller can change from game to game, and deciding what is best for each scenario can be tough. Something that completely changed my perspective on Queller was the rule of thumb to counter aggressively. Being aggressive with your Quellers can go a long way towards your overall game win percentage.
Spell Queller should not be viewed as a counterspell with upsides, but rather it should be viewed as a 2/3 flash flyer with upside. Stopping even something as simple as an Opt can go a long way, because now you have another body on the board. If your opponent chooses to do nothing on their turn, consider casting Spell Queller anyways if it means you’ll speed up your clock by a turn or more. Curving out is really important for this deck, and if you take your turn 3 off to hold up a cancel rather than adding pressure, it gives your opponent much more time to stabilize, and it’ll be much easier for them to disrupt your Queller in the future.
When choosing what spells to counter, you’ll want to be cautious when removal is involved. On one hand, countering their last Fatal Push is game over most of the time. However, this can easily backfire and create a cascade of removal spells that will effectively wipe your board. If you suspect that they have multiple removal spells in hand and they go after another spirit, consider letting the first resolve so that you can counter the second spell. This will leave you with one more spirit than if you were to counter immediately and then get blown out by another removal spell, losing your Queller and the original target.
There are times where Spell Queller should be a counterspell first, and this usually pertains to sweepers and combo. If you already have a board that will kill them and adding Queller doesn’t significantly improve your clock, hold back and save it for the Supreme Verdict. (Can’t be countered does not apply to Spell Queller). When up against combo decks, Queller serves as another piece of disruption that might be more important than adding to the clock.
When you already have an established clock, the role of Queller as a counterspell rises, but if you have an empty board killing them as fast as possible becomes more important. Managing this balance of choosing to cast it now and take something trivial or saving it for something important is a big part of the gameplay with the card. As long as you are hitting your opponent for 2 or more damage each turn, being a counterspell matters a lot more.
There are a few other things about Queller that I would like to mention. If you want to permanently exile a spell without them getting it back, remove Spell Queller from the battlefield before the first trigger resolves. Because of the wording, it will try to cast the spell that is not currently exiled which will fizzle, and then the spell will be exiled with no way to get out. This was more of a trick in Modern with Path to Exile, but can be repeated in Pioneer with Unsummon and Essence Flux if you play those cards. (Wouldn’t recommend).
Queller is also one of the best blockers in the deck with 3 toughness, especially if it doesn’t have a spell underneath it. Finally, as powerful as Queller is, there are some cases in which you may want to board it out. Against other aggro decks, and especially against the mirror, Spell Queller is a sub-par card because it is forced to play as a vanilla 2/3 more often than not as they’ll have dumped their hand by the time you can cast this.
Without this card Spirits . . . would probably still be a deck. Don’t get me wrong, more lords is great, but 3 mana is not as great as our 2 mana lord and savior Supreme Phantom. Despite that, we still play this because it is another lord, and it has some small upsides that can come up in various situations. I’d like to compare this card to Drogskol Captain, the lord of choice in Modern, and why I think that if it were Pioneer legal, we’d probably still end up playing Empyrean Eagle.
The red removal in Pioneer means that 3 toughness is an important benchmark to hit. This also serves as a much better blocker than Drogskol in a format where we tend to do a lot more blocking. This deck also plays more non-spirit flyers such as Brazen Borrower, which really appreciate the boost. These things matter much less in Modern, which is why Drogskol Captain sees play there but in Pioneer Empyrean Eagle is a great replacement, if not simply better.
The real discussion around Eagle comes from when you should side it out. I find myself trimming a copy here or there quite frequently, which surprises me, but some sideboard cards are simply more relevant. In matchups where I know I’m going to be grinding, Empyrean Eagle is pretty bad when I top deck it for an empty board. Against aggro decks, I try to keep all of them in as one of the best ways to stabilize is to cast Supreme Phantom into Empyrean Eagle. Finally, against combo, I trim a few as while it is important for me to kill them fast, it is often more important that I set up a clock and disrupt them long enough to get the kill.
People have slept on this card for the longest time, and finally I feel vindicated for saying this card is good. (I’ve been saying this card is good since at least 2018, don’t @ me). Nebelgast Herald really gets to shine in Pioneer, where creature combat is so centric to the format. Recently, as the meta has shifted away from creatures, Nebelgast has lost a little favor, but the majority of the format can still be hurt by their creatures getting tapped down.
One of the main reasons Nebelgast has done so well is because Blue and White based creature decks don’t have a lot of good removal. Nebelgast alongside some flash spirits (or even just Rattlechains) can effectively remove their best creature for the rest of the game as long as you have spirits in hand. Pre-combat main phase is a pivotal decision point for this deck, as you often have to make the choice to play an empty Spell Queller and stifle their aggression, or wait till their end step and try to nab something. Nebelgast is great because it proactively removes their creature while still allowing you to build a board presence.
Nebelgast is not great in drawn out games, but it’s main goal is to give you just enough time to finish them off. If they can’t swing with Uro for one or two turns, that might have bought you enough time to make a comeback. When sideboarding, consider how long the game may be going, and whether attacking and blocking are going to be players in the game. Against a deck like Inverter, while they technically can play Inverter to block, usually they’ll be trying to win the game. Whereas with Delirium, their gameplan may revolve around blocking with an Ishkanah. It may not seem like it, but Nebelgast Herald is one of our best removal options in Pioneer as long as attacking and blocking are the name of the game.
The honorary spirit, Brazen Borrower has been putting up great results in this tribe. Another great tempo card, Brazen Borrower fits perfectly into the deck in everything except creature type. As it turns out, when Disperse draws you a 3/1 flyer it goes from bad to great. Brazen Borrower is a card that is simply powerful, and is useful against most decks. This generic usefulness, also means that it is not particularly strong against anything, making it a good choice in a blind meta.
In a known meta, Brazen does begin to lose some usefulness, and if that meta is one where Petty Theft is bad, this card loses a lot of value. A 3/1 flash flyer is still useful, but your flex slots can be tuned to be pretty powerful if you know what you are going up against. This also tends to have Brazen get boarded out as a Rest in Peace will simply do more than Borrower against certain types of decks.
If you want a more narrow 3/1 flyer for three, I’d be remiss to not mention Nimble Obstructionist. This card is the narrow to Brazen Borrower general application, but in the right meta it can be a good call. Specifically, Obstructionist is great against combos as it doesn’t use the stack, and can stop various planeswalkers. It is much more narrow than Borrower, however, and should only see play in more dire situations. It can also function as a good budget Brazen Borrower too.
Teferi, Time Raveler
Everybody’s favorite card to hate. Teferi is another card that is generically powerful, but is more narrow than Brazen Borrower in a lot of ways. Top decking this when you need to kill isn’t great, but being able to monopolize the stack means that you get to play the game on easy mode. Teferi singlehandedly wins any game with counterspells if he manages to stick, and the other modes aren’t too shabby. The +1 is largely useless, unless you are playing Declaration in Stone, and the -3 makes a decent Reflector Mage impression.
Teferi is primarily helpful against two decks, midrange and control. The higher cmc of a permanent you can bounce the better, but he is still useful against aggro and control, albeit to a lesser extent. You want Teferi if you want complete control over the stack and it can vary how useful that is from deck to deck. The reason I called out midrange and control is because they have more expensive permanents and typically use more instants. Teferi is great if you want easier games of magic (and who doesn’t) but isn’t a card that I believe is necessary for the archetype. Control is a deck that spirits can reliably beat given enough practice, and there are more specific cards that can do more against midrange decks.
Teferi is still a card that one should consider playing, however. Spirits operates primarily at instant speed, and monopolizing the stack in this way is a great boon to the archetype. If you anticipate a lot of blue decks in your meta, Teferi can single handedly crush those decks while still being effective in other matchups. Teferi is a great card in certain metagames, but many players can be successful without it.
One line that I forgot to mention was Teferi bouncing Spell Queller. If you decide to bounce Queller, not only will they not be able to cast the spell that was underneath it, you’ll also draw a card and have Spell Queller again. It’s a big draw to this card that I didn’t remember when I was first writing this article but was reminded by a few comments on reddit.
The Mana Leak that can do it all. Mystical Dispute is an insanely powerful counterspell and has proven itself to be so strong, that many players (myself included) have begun playing it in the main deck to combat various decks. As a fail case, paying 3 for Mana Leak isn’t terrible, and helps sell the Spell Queller bluff. At it’s best it defines all blue decks in the format and demands that they play 4 copies of this card somewhere in their 75, or be extremely disadvantaged.
Mystical Dispute is obviously meta dependent on how good of card it is. When spirits is a rogue deck and the top of the metagame is black and red aggro you won’t want to play this card. In a climate such as one with Dimir Inverter, Bant Spirits, and Sultai Delrium all being top decks, it’s no wonder this card has begun to see play in the main deck. Mystical Dispute is less good than it was a month ago, as now the blue decks have begun to cannibalize themselves, but I still believe the card is good enough to play in the maindeck. With a deck like Dimir Inverter that is taking up 14% of the meta share (according to mtggoldfish), having cards that interact on the stack is important against this combo in particular and none do better against this deck than Dispute.
Mystical Dispute, unlike Teferi and Brazen Borrower, is a card that depends a lot more on the metagame to be good. If all you are facing is Mono-White Heliod and company, obviously this card is going to perform poorly. Fortunately the fail case on this card is still respectable, and is part of the reason why it can be main decked so easily. Try your best to judge what you might get paired up against and adjust your main and sideboard accordingly.
Deputy of Detention
Even though the removal package in Pioneer is pretty slim, Deputy of Detention (and by extension Detention Sphere) stand out as being some of the best removal in the format. Snatching up 2 or more cards always feels great, and getting to find this off a Collected Company gives your instant much more flexibility. Due to the flexibility and power of this removal spell, very often she’s the only out I’ll have in sticky situations. However, as great of a removal spell as she is, that is usually all she ends up being.
Deputy of Detention being a creature only really matters in two scenarios, finding her off Collected Company and getting killed by removal. Very rarely do I find myself blocking with Deputy as I don’t want to open her up to a Fatal Push or a Shock, and she hardly does anything as an attacker. This is why it can be good to play Detention Sphere over Deputy if you aren’t playing Collected Company.
Deputy is a card that you’ll want to play if you find that you need stronger removal and Nebelgast Herald isn’t doing enough. Nebelgast is a great card for tempo because it slows down the opponent and speeds up your clock, but if there are a lot of noncreature threats, and the disruption isn’t doing enough to slow them down Deputy can come in to help.
Knight of Autumn
Don’t know what you want or need in your sideboard? Throw a couple of these in and feel comfortable no matter what matchup you come up against. Knight of Autumn is generically good almost always and doesn’t have a fail case. If the board is empty, make a big 4/3, Naturalize an Oblivion Ring from your opponent, and gain some life against the red deck. Primarily, you’ll be bringing her in when you want to Naturalize or you need the life gain and chump blocker. You can also bring her in if there are a lot of cards in your deck that aren’t good in the matchup and a 4/3 would just do better.
Three mana is when this deck hits it’s stride, and is where most of the power plays are. Due to how many powerful cards are in this slot, and because Collected Company is at it’s best when it pulls three-drops, this slot has the most competition. Even though tribal decks may appear to be paint by numbers on the surface, there is still a lot of flexibility in what can go into the deck. If there’s a three drop that you believe is incredible that I didn’t mention, feel free to share it in the comments below.
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