Hi all, I’m back with an update on how I’m getting on in the world of Pioneer. A few things have changed in the format since I last wrote about it in January, largely thanks to the release of Theros Beyond Death. Thassa’s Oracle, Underworld Breach and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath have all spawned new decks. As hinted in my last article, I decided to move from Azorius to Bant spirits so in this article I’ll do a quick comparison of Bant and Azorius Spirits before sharing my thoughts on card choices, matchups, and sideboarding, which have all been affected by the aforementioned cards impacting the metagame.
Azorius or Bant
The green splash is largely for Collected Company (CoCo), which provides great recovery potential following a board wipe, can help us expand a developing board, and diversifies our instant-speed options. The card’s strength is mainly reliant upon how much faith we have in the top six cards of our deck – and ideally, we hit ‘just what we need’ with CoCo. This could be a Spell Queller and Nebelgast Herald to counter a spell and tap an opponent’s attackers (Cryptic Command anyone?) or a Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle to pump our team in combat. However, what if the top six yields only a Spectral Sailor, four lands, and another copy of CoCo? Sad times! We can construct our deck so that it rewards us far more often than it ‘misfires’, but the element of variance is an intrinsic part of CoCo that shouldn’t be ignored. Playsets of mana sources producing green have been added to the manabase to accommodate CoCo.
The Azorius deck doesn’t have a ‘haymaker’ or ‘get out of jail’, card but it can play more interaction in the slots that would otherwise be CoCo’s. Which cards to play instead might be based on our judgment of the anticipated metagame – for example, if we expect a lot of aggressive decks, we might dedicate some slots to cards like Seal Away. However, if we expect more combo or control, we could maindeck cards like Spell Pierce or Mystical Dispute, which usually has the added bonus of freeing up some sideboard space. In addition, the Azorius deck has a much simpler and mostly pain-free manabase WITH the added bonus of being able to include Mutavault. This powerful pseudo-spirit can provide us with more aggressive or defensive options when we need them.
Having played both versions of the deck, I wouldn’t particularly fault someone for picking one over the other at the moment. A lot of the time, the decks will function very similarly, yet while the Azorius build has the benefit of a cleaner manabase, the power offered by Coco is something the deck truly misses. A good way to summarise this is that the Bant version has a higher ceiling and lower floor, whereas the Azorius variant has a higher floor but a lower ceiling.
The previous spirits deck in my last Pioneer article ran only 21 lands and three Curious Obsession, but I’d now recommend moving away from this set-up and running 24 lands and dropping the Obsession. The deck thrives on consistently hitting its first four land drops to curve out and be able to ‘double-spell’ as quickly as possible.
Card Choices for Bant Spirits
Below is the build I played last weekend in a team trios constructed event (Pioneer, Modern and Legacy) to a 4-1 individual record (I didn’t actually finish the match I lost, as both my team-mates had already lost their own matches… although I’m pretty sure I was going to lose it anyway had it continued). Individual performance is a lot less important in a team event, and, unfortunately, the matchups that my team-mates faced were very challenging for the decks they had chosen to play. Our overall team record ended up being 3-2, which wasn’t enough for the Top 4 cut. Going 4-1 personally did boost my confidence with the archetype though!
A lot of the maindeck builds itself. After 24 lands, 4 CoCo’s, and enough spirits to make it worth it, there’s little wiggle-room for maindeck spice. Here are some of the flex or sideboard cards I considered but ultimately didn’t end up including.
This is a popular option that provides a body and interaction all in one card. Due to its creature type, it doesn’t synergise with Mausoleum Wanderer, Supreme Phantom, or Nebelgast Herald (but does with Empyrean Eagle). I personally have played this card quite a bit in the format and have found that using the adventure side as well as the creature side of the card was more clunky and less relevant than I first thought.
Having some graveyard hate is currently quite important to combat Underworld Breach and Delerium. We could also encounter less commonly-played decks using the graveyard such as Soulflayer or Arclight Phoenix. Rest in Peace provides a more holistic answer to the graveyard, but Remorseful Cleric can be found with CoCo and can benefit from the other spirit synergies. It’s important to note that it can be protected from removal with Rattlechains and Selfless Spirit. There’s also the option of playing it on turn two and using it to beat down until the opportune moment arises. I’m likely to try it in the future.
‘Anti-aggro’ options are also important for combatting decks like Mono-Red, Mono-Black, and green-based ‘Stompy’ decks that are basically faster than us on a pure beatdown front. While Seal Away hits most attackers, if a creature doesn’t need to tap to create chaos, such as Eidolon of the Great Revel, we’re still in trouble. Baffling End will make the difference, but it won’t work against some of the heavier hitters like Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, or Spawn of Mayhem.
This is mainly for the Underworld Breach deck that abuses Lotus Field and plays its entire deck in a turn. I think it’s marginally better than Rest in Peace in that matchup because it hamstrings both the deck’s ability to generate a lot of mana and play a lot of spells all for one card. However, it can’t really be used in other matchups outside of stopping Nykthos, shrine to Nyx.
This card is very cute. It can counter (in a relatively uncounterable way) the triggered ability of Thassa’s Oracle and Ulamog the Ceaseless Hunger, or be a 3-power evasive threat. I didn’t include this because I decided that I already had enough sideboard power against Inverter decks.
Matchups and sideboarding
I actually think this is a good matchup and one of the reasons to play spirits decks at the moment. Being able to present a disruptive clock is very annoying for the game-plan of inverter decks and, in game one, pressures them into trying to combo as quickly as possible. Given this, I think they are less incentivised to rely on the combo in the sideboarded games. They can remove both Thassa’s Oracle and Censor for Mystical Dispute, more removal, and alternative win conditions such as Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. This let’s them play as more of a control deck with the option to win with Inverter and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries as a back-up. Empyrean Eagle is too slow on the draw in this matchup. Instead, we want to hold up a Spell Queller or similar for when our opponent can play an Inverter of the Truth. Deputy of Detention is a hedge against their alternate win conditions.
OUT (on the play)
OUT (on the draw)
Another matchup that I think is favourable. Again, the fast disruptive clock is not what their deck wants to face. In game one, Spell Queller is by far the most important card. If it can nab Underworld Breach or stop Fae of Wishes going on an adventure then that is often enough. They expect us to sideboard more countermagic and graveyard hate, but their sideboard is a bit by the need to contain ‘wish’ targets. They might board in a sweeper like Anger of the Gods or answers to hate like Ratchet Bomb. Mystical Dispute, is very effective against us so if they have it they could board any in.
I think this matchup is quite bad for Bant Spirits. Sultai packs a good suite of removal, disruption, card advantage, and win conditions as well as the ability to buy back removal with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or return Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath to either close out a game or get them closer to Emrakul, the Promised End. After sideboarding, they get to board in Mystical Dispute against us as well as more removal. Our sideboard cards improve this matchup a bit, but it’s still principally very difficult.
Pre-board, I think the person on the play is very advantaged. If Mono black can keep us on the defensive, then they usually win. However, if we ‘stabilise’ or start out as the aggressor we usually win because it’s very hard for them to block. In the postboard games, expect them to field more spot removal and play a slower gameplan including cards like Aethersphere Harvester and Kalitas instead of all the one-drops. Even so, I would still sideboard in our anti-aggro cards to stretch any early threats and removal and minimise the chances of being too far behind before stabilising.
OUT (on the play)
OUT (on the draw)
A Bant mirror, can be decided by having better CoCo’s than your opponent (or vice versa). Other than this, both decks are very similar. Sometimes we will need to attack conservatively to avoid getting blown out by the opponent having the right combination of tricks/interaction. Nebelgast Herald is the main board-stall breaker. After sideboard, risks are even higher because both players have access to Mystical Dispute. I also don’t like CoCo postboard, partly because there are so many ways to stop it between Queller, Dispute, and Wanderer, and considering the variable power level of the card based on the top of one’s deck, it’s simply not worth the risk. In this matchup, having access to Deputy of Detention in the sideboard can also be a bit of a mirror breaker. Unfortunately, my build doesn’t have access to Settle the Wreckage, so if you expect more of the mirror, you may want to call on the deputy in your 75. Here is how I would sideboard with my build:
How difficult a matchup this is depends a lot on the red player’s card choices. Many of the newer versions are playing Rampaging Ferocidon and Eidolon of the Great Revel, but there are some builds that opt for a slightly wider plan of Goblin Rabblemaster and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell. Against Eidolon and Ferocidon, we only really have the option to race in game one, whereas it’s possible to play a little more defensively against Rabblemasters as long as they don’t have Torbran out. Goblin Chainwhirler is one of the best cards against us, but I don’t think a lot of builds are maindecking that card anymore as it’s slower than the other options. Getting a four-toughness spirit is quite important in game one, as they usually have to use two cards to remove it. Postboard, I would be sure to add the same anti-aggro cards and expect more ways for them to remove creatures, even cards that can kill a four-toughness creature. I think this is a sub-par matchup pre- and post-board.
I generally consider this to be a good matchup for spirits. The main thing to avoid is an uncontested Teferi, Time Raveler, as it stops us from playing an instant-speed game. Thankfully, we can often remove it through combat. If they can stall out the game to turn seven and play Time Raveler with a follow-up Supreme Verdict, then we’re in trouble (unless we have Selfless Spirit). After sideboard, they will likely trade their inefficient counterspells for Mystical Dispute and add cards like Dream Trawler and Lyra Dawnbringer to contest the skies. These cards don’t make Seal Away worth it, but luckily they can be handled by Disdainful Stroke and even Nebelgast Herald to an extent. Even though we reduce our creature count for games two and three, I think we still want to keep all four CoCo’s, as it’s the best way to quickly add to the board, especially if we are hit by Supreme Verdict.
I haven’t yet played this matchup yet, but it looks like they have a few things in the tool chest to slow us down, such as enchantment-based removal, Tomik, Distinguished Advokist, and Arcanist’s Owl, which can block spirits and find combo pieces. I had initially thought that Disdainful Stroke would be enough to stop the combo, but if they run Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, they can get a 2/2 Ballista for only two mana and bolster. With only Deputy of Detention serving as a Disenchants in the sideboard, I’m quite unarmed for this matchup. The lifegain also hurts our deck’s aggressive plan. Here is how I would sideboard with my current build but if you’re worried about facing more of this matchup then you will need a better plan than mine, which might mean including cards like Natural State, Fragmentize, or Glare of Heresy in the sideboard.
I would recommend Bant Spirits to anyone wanting to play Pioneer at the moment. It has a decent matchup against arguably the most popular deck, Dimir Inverter, as well as versus Lotus Breach, which is getting a lot of hype at the moment. Unfortunately, it might struggle a bit against decks with a lot of removal, but I only consider the Sultai matchup particularly difficult for now. Perhaps this perception will change as I play more. The Mono White matchup is something I’m not sure about yet, we shall see.
I’m continuing with the eternal formats as I am attending the Axion Now Mega Weekend to play Team Trios and Modern. I haven’t played my Humans deck in a while, but the metagame looks very hostile to 5 Colour Humans with Dryad of the Ilysian Grove giving the Primeval Titan decks a boost and Jund still being played a lot to combat Urza decks. It might be time for me to try another deck… Then again, when has a terrible metagame position stopped me before?
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154 – feel free to hit me up with your thoughts online or if you see me at an event. I regularly attend competitive tournaments in the UK including Magic Fests and events that pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour. I also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.