Anyone who’s been involved with a Magic Discord for long enough has at one point or another witnessed or taken part in The Conversation™. For those that haven’t yet, or aren’t keenly dialed into my hyper-specific in-joke, The Conversation™ is an argument that all intermediate level Magic players seem to get into every few months wherein they attempt to figure out the definition of tempo in the context of Magic.
Various examples of decks that these people have never played get thrown around from Legacy Delver to Standard Delver, even to Pioneer Delver. In the midst of that though, you’re guaranteed to find the person who has no idea what tempo means trying to convince you that Siege Rhino and Niv-Mizzet Reborn are tempo cards, or that aggro is the only true form of tempo left, or somehow UW Supreme Verdict Control is secretly a tempo strategy.
The Conversation™ is truly something to behold as an experienced player. Whenever I see it happen though, I try not to participate. I just leave a link to a deck list for today’s deck, say “This is a tempo deck” and walk away. Let’s take a look at Pioneer’s hottest competitive budget list and the last true bastion of tempo in this format – Mono-Blue Spirits.
Before starting, as always, some notes about the article:
- I usually make a note about not expecting greatness from these budget lists. They’re meant to be a starting point for your entry to the format instead of a finish line. However, this specific deck is a bit of an outlier there, and we’ll touch on that more later on.
- Each Pioneer list will average out to around $100 at the time of posting. Budget decks are meant to be affordable to the people who need them, not to be compared to some benchmark set by the prices of the top tier decks of the format.
- I also usually say that these decks are personally tested and are worth talking about for either their competitive prowess or their capacity to be a good teaching tool. Today’s deck is a perfect example of both of these.
Budget Pioneer Mono-Blue Spirits by Darren Magnotti
Mono-Blue Spirits is a tempo-based strategy that drifts and exists somewhere between a “protect the queen” and “creature swarm” game plan. It looks to combine the power of flying tribal synergies with cheap and efficient disruptive spells in order to present a board state that’s difficult to answer while simultaneously working to throw off the opposing game plan. Leaning into the mono-blue aspect instead of trying to force Azorius or even Bant also allows the deck much more consistency without the battle against its own mana base. Ultimately, this is the most streamlined version of any of the various Spirits flavored lists floating around Pioneer at the moment.
Spirits utilizes a diverse ensemble of creatures whose focus is to synergize well with each other while also being individually reasonable cards on their own. Ascendant Spirit is the enabler that spurred the original transition into mono-blue with its ability to quickly outsize many opposing forces and act as a one-card curve if left unchecked. With one of the core principles of tempo decks being a more efficient use of mana per turn, Ascendant Spirit sits neatly at the top of the pile in terms of “things that effectively make use of all of your mana every turn.”
Spectral Sailor may seem rather unassuming, but between its ability to complete the curve on a specific turn at instant speed, come down early as a hard-to-block threat and dig deeper through the deck in the later turns after holding up mana for a counterspell, the Sailor is one of the most versatile tools the deck has access to. Shacklegeist and Spectral Adversary both come down as interactive pieces to help remove a pesky blocker or clear the way for an alpha attack at little cost, adding to the deck’s overall plan of mana efficiency.
Being monocolored, the deck also has the privilege of running a set of Faceless Haven, a large creature-land who can close out a game that would otherwise seem lost at the hands of a timely sweeper such as Supreme Verdict. Rounding it all out is Supreme Phantom, who ties the room together by shortening the clock by several turns and helping to evade the extremely common damage based removal floating around the format at the moment.
One key point to the Spirits deck is the ability to turn its interactive pieces into threats by utilizing some specific creatures with spell-like abilities. Rattlechains is an all-star for this deck with its ability to blank a removal spell while also enabling “expert mode” for the deck by allowing everything else to come down at instant speed. Mausoleum Wanderer plays a similar role in the early turns, suppressing or effectively redirecting Fatal Pushes and Play with Fires to itself in an attempt to keep the more valuable creatures on the table.
Lastly, what self respecting blue deck would register for an event without packing some countermagic? Spell Pierce keeps an opponent on their toes from the moment they see it, being a cheap way to hold up mana and ghost-counter opposing spells from players too afraid to cast into it – even if there isn’t actually a Spell Pierce in hand. Speaking of ghost-counter, the new Geistlight Snare plays extremely well with this deck, frequently being a one-mana Mana Leak starting on turn two or three.
Capitalizing on all of these flying creatures, Spirits tends to pack a few ways to refill its hand and ensure that the spirit squad never stops. The biggest of these is Curious Obsession, a sneakily devastating play that frequently comes down on turn two or three to turn an otherwise innocuous flyer into a legitimate threat that will take over the game if left unchecked. It cannot be understated the importance of drawing all of the extra cards that Obsession provides, as one of the easiest ways for a game to slip from Spirit’s grasp is to run out of gas in the early turns.
Playing just above parity is where a Tempo deck thrives, and with all of the value that the best decks in Pioneer provide, it’s extremely important to be that one step ahead whenever possible. In this line of thought, this list is also packing a couple of Mischievous Catgeist to emulate the Obsession in the later turns, as well as a copy of Icon of Ancestry which is here to dig without relying on a fragile creature to do so.
Mono-Blue Spirits is one of the more difficult decks to pilot competently in this format. Playing it effectively requires a succession of heads-up and foresightful plays that depend heavily on format knowledge and what the key cards in a given strategy are, as well as how those other strategies can be dismantled without completely devastating your card advantage.
Suffice to say, there’s a reason that this deck has largely been championed by HEROtsukai and a handful of other pilots who’ve put the time in to master the archetype. The deck can feel extremely sleek and unstoppable in trained and competent hands, or feel absolutely clunky and miserable to someone picking the deck up for the first time without studying it first (couldn’t have been me…). It is definitely worth the time to learn the lines and analyze others piloting the deck as well, as the ceiling is extremely high. Spirits is an excellent deck for someone looking to play interactive Magic against opponents who are not, as well as being a perfect metagame call for a field that has forgotten that creatures with flying cannot be blocked except by creatures with flying or reach.
Mono-Blue Spirits is one of Pioneer’s most competitive budget lists, as the only difference between the list shown here and the “full” tiered list is two copies of Brazen Borrower coming in for Catgeist. Between the Challenger deck printings and the relatively high number of cards that are currently legal in Standard, this deck can be had for extremely cheap with one of the biggest costs being the Snow-Covered Islands.
While there are essentially zero upgrades needed to make this list truly competitive enough to take down a Challenge or RCQ near you, those who wish to explore the archetype further can consider splashing white, followed by green for the likes of Spell Queller and Collected Company. While those cards are strong in their own niches, they’re absolutely nonessential to the success of these spooky bois.
That’s all for this one! I hope you’re all enjoying this series, as with Pioneer becoming stronger and stronger every week, I’m sure that there’s a lot more space for budget decks in the format. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s up next! As always, remember to stay safe, play smart and thanks for reading.