Primer: Mono Blue Spirits in Pioneer

How to Build Mono Blue Spirits in Pioneer

Consulting the Spirits of Pioneer

Author: Zen Takahashi

Hello everybody!

I recently came second at a local Regional Championships Qualifier with Mono Blue Spirits, conceding to a friend in the finals so that he could get the invite (I am already qualified). Leading up to the event, I had played the deck quite a lot on Magic Online to decent success, and I felt good about most of my matchups against the top decks outside Black-Red Midrange and Mono Red Aggro. Most importantly, I really enjoyed playing the deck, and it reminded me a lot of playing Blue-White Delver in Standard back in the day.

In today’s article, I will be going through the archetype in depth. As most Mono Blue Spirts lists look very similar, I won’t give much attention to the decklist, but instead I want to focus on how to make mulligan decisions with this deck and how to sequence out the first few turns, as I think that is much more important with this deck than most others. I’ll then round it off with some important tips and tricks to be aware of, as well as a sideboard guide for the most played decks!

Mono Blue Spirits

Bad Cards, Good Combinations

When I initially picked up the deck, I constantly felt like I was getting unlucky and/or my cards were much weaker than my opponent’s. While the latter was in fact true, the former was mostly because I was keeping bad hands. 

Compared to most decks in the format, your cards are weaker than your opponent’s on a one-to-one basis. However, what makes this deck competitive is that certain combinations of your cards work really well together. Spectral Sailor is a bad card in a vacuum, but when combined with Curious Obsession and backed up by Geistlight Snare, it’s just about the most powerful turn-two play in the format. Supreme Phantom isn’t good on its own, but if you have a bunch of one-drop Spirits and a Rattlechains to protect it, it’ll win you the game.

Therefore, you need to keep a hand that can put together some kind of powerful draw on the first few turns of the game.

This would usually involve a combination of Curious Obsession and/or Supreme Phantom, but also a hand with two creatures backed by Rattlechains and counterspells will also be good enough. On the flip side, a hand like double Spectral Sailor, double Shacklegeist and three lands isn’t going to cut it. 

Another important factor to note is that I seldom keep hands with four lands in it. This deck cannot afford to flood out – yes, it has some flood insurance in the form of Ascendant Spirit and Faceless Haven, but ultimately your cards are weaker than your opponent’s on average, so you need to draw more non-land spells than your opponents to win.

This deck can operate off two lands, and comfortably with three, and you seldom need more than four lands. Having four lands in your opening hand means hoping not to draw another land for the rest of the game, which is obviously a stretch.

I seldom keep a four-land hand unless it has Curious Obsession or Supreme Phantom in it, or I know the matchup and the hand is well suited for it. For example, I would not keep a hand like Spectral Sailor, Rattlechains, Geistlight Snare and four Snow-Covered Islands. 

Finally, you really want to have a one-drop creature on turn-one, especially in pre-board games. The whole deck’s game plan is to commit to the board in the first few turns, then play the flash game. If you don’t commit to the board early, you just fall behind quickly as your cards get outclassed by your opponent’s more expensive cards. I almost never keep a seven-card hand without a one-drop in pre-board games unless I know the matchup and my hand is well-equipped for it.

All of this makes it sound like the deck mulligans a lot, which I believe should be the case.

I lost a lot of games by not being disciplined with how I mulligan, but once I treated the deck more like a combo deck where I wanted to try to sequence a broken combination of cards, I started to win a lot more.

The good news, though, is that this deck mulligans well! You don’t need many lands so you can always just put lands to the bottom, you can often get away with keeping one-land hands on the draw, and Curious Obsession easily recoups the card disadvantage! 

Sequencing correctly

With this deck, more important than mulligan decisions, is how you sequence out your turns. When I first picked up the deck, I felt like I kept running into my opponent’s cards, and it felt polar opposite to the experience I had playing against the deck where I’d get blown out by Rattlechains, as instead it felt like I was the one constantly getting exploited. That’s when I realised it was because I wasn’t playing the deck properly

To figure out how to play the deck, I went back and watched videos of Autumn Burchett playing Mono Blue Tempo in Standard at Mythic Championship Cleveland back in 2019. I remember watching her play the finals against Yoshihiko Ikawa and putting on an absolute masterclass, and though the deck is different, I learned a lot from watching the replays of her matches from that tournament. If you want to learn more about how to play these blue-based tempo decks, I highly recommend watching the finals of the event.

Sequencing Spirits: Turn By Turn

Ascendant Spirit

You basically always want to start with a one-drop creature, especially in pre-board games. In post-board games, it depends on the matchup and the rest of your hand, but I’d still be wary of keeping a hand without a one-drop. The deck is all about capitalising on your early start – all of your best cards (Curious Obsession, Rattlechains, Supreme Phantom and Geistlight Snare) are worse when you don’t have a creature on turn one. 

You usually want to commit another creature or Curious Obsession on turn two. The deck’s game plan is to commit to the board on the first two turns, then spend the rest of the game playing at instant-speed and being annoying with cards like Rattlechains and Geistlight Snare. Your ideal turn-two is to play Curious Obsession with Geistlight Snare up, but Curious Obsession on its own or Supreme Phantom is good too.

After that, having two more one-drop creatures or a Shacklegeist is also acceptable, but considerably less powerful.

I don’t like to play Rattlechains on turn two because the card gets better as the game goes longer – ideally you want to catch your opponent red-handed with it because otherwise it’s just a two-power flyer for two mana.

The choice between Curious Obsession and Supreme Phantom on turn two really depends on the matchup, and hopefully your opponent’s lands can indicate to you which way to lean. However, if you’re totally unsure, then Supreme Phantom is usually the safer bet if they have red or black mana up as they can have a one-mana removal spell, while Curious Obsession is usually better if they are tapped out.

This is where the flash game starts, and for the rest of the game you want to play at instant-speed. Playing at instant speed is what makes the deck difficult to play against, as your opponent can have a difficult time figuring out whether to play around Rattlechains, Geistlight Snare or both.

When I first started playing the deck, I hated the idea of not maximising my mana. So at the end of my opponent’s turn, if I had mana available, I’d just play a Ratteclains or upgrade my Ascendant Spirit then get blown out by a removal spell from my opponent. I learnt that the key is to not commit any more to the board if you don’t need to. Just happily untap and draw for your turn, and don’t feel the need to do something.

The way this deck wins most of the time is to get slightly ahead of your opponent in the first two turns, then maintain that for the rest of the game by just responding to the key cards they play.

I was initially worried I’d be disadvantaged as the game went longer because my cards are weaker, but it turns out that isn’t necessarily a problem because your cards are so cheap, so if the games goes longer, and you haven’t committed, you essentially get to keep pressuring them bit-by-bit and then on turn six or seven you can start playing three or four spells in one turn while they can only play two.

The game going longer is fine and Geistlight Snare doesn’t get worse if they’re not committing because then they will have to strangle their mana later anyway to try double-cast on turn six or seven. They can’t play around both Rattlechains and Geistlight Snare because then they just die from the pressure on board.

As this deck only plays twenty-three lands, you’re not always guaranteed to have four lands on turn four. So generally it’s around turn five or six where you start having spare mana to cast multiple spells in one turn. This can often be pumping up Ascendant Spirit or casting a Supreme Phantom while still holding up Rattlechains or Geistlight Snare.

If you can reach this stage of the game with a board presence advantage, you can usually bring it home, as you’re going to be more mana efficient than your opponent from this point onwards. However, if you’re behind at this point, it’s usually difficult to claw your way back in as on average your opponent’s topdecks are likely better than yours unless you draw into your key cards. In terms of activating Faceless Haven, I generally only like to do so once I have five lands in play. Since Haven has vigilance, this allows you to attack while still holding up two mana for Rattlechains or a counterspell. 

Tips and Tricks

  • You can activate Ascendant Spirit’s last ability multiple times, which will give you more +1+1 counters and the draw triggers add-up i.e. if you activate it three times, you’ll have six +1+1 counters and you’ll draw three cards if you hit your opponent with it.
  • If your opponent targets Mausoleum Wanderer with the Stomp side of Bonecrusher Giant, always sacrifice it so their spell fizzles and they can’t cast it from Adventure later.
  • Slip Out the Back can be used on your opponent’s creatures. This can be useful for removing a key blocker, or you can mess up your opponent’s Reflection of Kiki-Jiki by phasing out the creature they target to make a copy of.
  • I try to hold Faceless Haven in hand for as long as possible. The deck just wants blue mana, and sometimes I play Haven early on turn three thinking having two blue mana is enough, but very seldom I’m activating Haven that early yet a few times I’ve been caught out for not having my third blue mana source in play. 
Faceless Haven
Witness Protection
  • Against Heroic decks, you often want to tap down their key creature on their upkeep with Shacklegeist in case they draw God’s Willing
  • You can cast Curious Obsession post-combat. This may seem weird, but it often comes up in spots with Supreme Phantom, where if they had a removal spell they would likely use it in combat, so you can then play Obsession post-combat if they didn’t kill anything or spent their removal spell. The reason to play it second-main instead of wait until your next turn is to be more mana efficient and/or provide a discount for your Geistlight Snare. Just be careful though, as the Obsession will fall off if you hadn’t attacked that turn.

Sideboard Guide

  • Shacklegeist is the worst card in the deck and can easily be cut in any matchup unless flyers are the whole game plan and/or the tapping ability is very good in the particular matchup. Mono Green Devotion, Boros Heroic and Abzan Greasefang are the matchups that come to mind. 
  • If you are bringing in Mystical Disputes, you can often cut some Lofty Denial. While counterspells are great, you don’t want to overload on them too much, as it usually comes at the expense of having more creatures. It’s fine to just swap out Denials for Disputes simply for the latter being the more mana efficient option. 
  • I often cut two lands in post-board games. Post-board games tend to be more attritional and go on for longer, so it’s less about curving out. I don’t mind stumbling on mana if I have cards like Mystical Dispute in hand. On the flip side, I really don’t want to flood out, and that obviously happens more if the games go for longer. 

What to Sideboard Against What Deck

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article, as I covered in depth one of the most popular and enjoyable decks in Pioneer right now – Mono Blue Spirits! Even if you do not plan to play the deck, I hope you could learn a thing or two, as learning how the deck makes decisions and plays out is just as important to know for the player sitting across from the Spirits deck! In my next article, I will be following up on my previous Mono Red Aggro article, which you can find here, by covering in detail the Burn version of the archetype. I can’t wait to talk about one of my new favourite cardsChandra, Dressed to Kill!

Till next time!

Zen Takahashi

@mtgzen on Twitter 

About the Author

Zen Takahashi is a seasoned writer and mainstay on the Three for One Trading writing team. He is an avid Eternal player from Auckland, New Zealand and enjoys competing in local Legacy events and playing Old School over webcam with friends.

Previously, he was a Silver Pro for multiple years and his results included five Grand Prix Top 8s, a 27th place at Pro Tour Amonkhet, three consecutive online Regional PTQ wins, and he co-created the Modern Dredge deck.

Nowadays though, he primarily plays Legacy, his favorite format, but he also branches out into Pioneer and Modern.

Zen Takahashi

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