Last weekend brought Magic Online's Showcase Challenge events—the culmination of weeks of play that qualify the Top 8 players for an even higher-profile event. Coming just days after the bans that rocked Pioneer to its core, the Pioneer Showcase served as a gauge of the format's new metagame. A finals featuring Mono-Green Devotion winning over Five-Color Niv to Light was predictable given they were two of the most hyped decks immediately after the bans—but the event did hold a real surprise. The most successful deck in the Showcase was Spirits, putting three copies into the Top 8!

Magic: The Gathering TCG Deck - Azorius Spirits by Traft

'Azorius Spirits' - constructed deck list and prices for the Magic: The Gathering Trading Card Game from TCGplayer Infinite!

Created By: Traft

Event: MTGO Pioneer Showcase Challenge - 08/09/2020

Rank: 4

Pioneer

Market Price: $167.32

Cards

Mystical Dispute

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $1.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/198683_200w.jpg

This spell costs {2} less to cast if it targets a blue spell.
Counter target spell unless its controller pays {3}.

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Mana Confluence

Market Price: $18.57

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/82224_200w.jpg

{T}, Pay 1 life: Add one mana of any color.

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Lofty Denial

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.12

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215611_200w.jpg

Counter target spell unless its controller pays {1}. If you control a creature with flying, counter that spell unless its controller pays {4} instead.

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Supreme Phantom

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $1.57

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/169230_200w.jpg

Flying
Other Spirits you control get +1/+1.

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Mausoleum Wanderer

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $2.48

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/120513_200w.jpg

Flying
Whenever another Spirit enters the battlefield under your control, Mausoleum Wanderer gets +1/+1 until end of turn.
Sacrifice Mausoleum Wanderer: Counter target instant or sorcery spell unless its controller pays {X}, where X is Mausoleum Wanderer's power.

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Light of Hope

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.13

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212799_200w.jpg

Choose one —
• You gain 4 life.
• Destroy target enchantment.
• Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.

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Plains

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.11

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/222818_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {W}.)

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Rattlechains

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.55

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216536_200w.jpg

Flash
Flying
When Rattlechains enters the battlefield, target Spirit gains hexproof until end of turn.
You may cast Spirit spells as though they had flash.

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Spell Queller

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $5.44

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/120286_200w.jpg

Flash
Flying
When Spell Queller enters the battlefield, exile target spell with converted mana cost 4 or less.
When Spell Queller leaves the battlefield, the exiled card's owner may cast that card without paying its mana cost.

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Devout Decree

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.09

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192525_200w.jpg

Exile target creature or planeswalker that's black or red. Scry 1. (Look at the top card of your library. You may put that card on the bottom of your library.)

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Nebelgast Herald

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.29

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216535_200w.jpg

Flash (You may cast this spell any time you could cast an instant.)
Flying
Whenever Nebelgast Herald or another Spirit enters the battlefield under your control, tap target creature an opponent controls.

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Glacial Fortress

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $4.92

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/142037_200w.jpg

Glacial Fortress enters the battlefield tapped unless you control a Plains or an Island.
{T}: Add {W} or {U}.

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Aether Gust

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.71

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192535_200w.jpg

Choose target spell or permanent that's red or green. Its owner puts it on the top or bottom of their library.

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Watcher of the Spheres

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $0.30

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215659_200w.jpg

Flying
Creature spells with flying you cast cost {1} less to cast.
Whenever another creature with flying enters the battlefield under your control, Watcher of the Spheres gets +1/+1 until end of turn.

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Grafdigger's Cage

Market Price: $1.71

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192909_200w.jpg

Creature cards in graveyards and libraries can't enter the battlefield.
Players can't cast spells from graveyards or libraries.

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Selfless Spirit

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $8.36

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/120285_200w.jpg

Flying
Sacrifice Selfless Spirit: Creatures you control gain indestructible until end of turn.

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Disdainful Stroke

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/176441_200w.jpg

Counter target spell with converted mana cost 4 or greater.

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Empyrean Eagle

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $0.44

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192526_200w.jpg

Flying
Other creatures you control with flying get +1/+1.

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Island

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.14

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/222819_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {U}.)

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Hallowed Fountain

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $7.17

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/182831_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {W} or {U}.)
As Hallowed Fountain enters the battlefield, you may pay 2 life. If you don't, it enters the battlefield tapped.

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Spectral Sailor

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.26

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216411_200w.jpg

Flash (You may cast this spell any time you could cast an instant.)
Flying
{3}{U}: Draw a card.

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Shacklegeist

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.20

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215701_200w.jpg

Flying
Shacklegeist can block only creatures with flying.
Tap two untapped Spirits you control: Tap target creature you don't control.

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Like Mono-Green and Five-Color Niv, Spirits is another deck pulled from Pioneer's past, but it wasn't one I expected to be such a big winner from the bans. Spirits has a history of being a good foil for combo decks, with its aggression backed by counterspells, so the death of combo hardly seemed good for its prospects.

As it turns out, this same mix is also effective against the controlling decks that have filled the metagame, from Niv to Light to the Azorius deck Luis "LSV" Scott-Vargas played to the Top 8, and the Sultai Midrange deck that finished in the Top 4. With the ability to play at instant speed, answers to removal like Selfless Spirit and Rattlechains, counterspells, and card draw from Spectral Sailor, Spirits can be a nightmare for control strategies.

It can also be argued that Mono-Green Devotion straddles the line of a combo deck, and without Walking Ballista it has few ways to interact with Spirits flying over blockers and pressuring its planeswalkers and life total.

At the same time, the aggressive decks like Mono-Red that pose a problem for Spirits, and that I expected to rise in the metagame, have been mostly absent. Mono-Black was the sole aggro deck reaching the Top 8.

A look at the Pioneer Challenge event the day prior paints a very similar picture— two Spirit decks reached the Top 8 alongside two Niv to Light, Bant Control, Sultai Midrange, Mono-Green Devotion, and a sole aggressive deck in Boros Burn. It all points to a great metagame shaping up for Spirits, which enters week two after the banning as one of the top decks in the field.

Core Set 2021's Impact on Spirits

Beyond the favorable metagame created by the bans, some of the success of Spirits can be explained by the multiple new cards from Core Set 2021.

Shacklegeist added a strong new tool to the deck, an efficient threat that brings a reusable ability to contain opposing creatures, whether defensively or offensively—or more likely both in the racing situations the deck often finds itself. Nebelgast Herald in a similar role was already a key part of the strategy, and Shacklegeist adds even more of that effect, but one that won't run out of Spirits to trigger it.

Lofty Denial provides Spirits with an efficient counterspell, which, if powered by a flier, is arguably the best in Pioneer. While it doesn't look like much more than a glorified Mana Leak, that card is not legal in the format, but was always among the most metagame-defining cards in Standard when it was legal there. Spirits will essentially always have a flier in play, so it's consistently better than Mana Leak. Making the opponent pay 4 mana is as good as hard countering a spell in most situations, especially for an aggressive deck that plans to never see the late game when the opponent can pay the cost.

Lofty Denial and Shacklegeist became immediate staples of Spirits, but it's taken the hive mind more time to come to a consensus and adopt what might be the most important new addition of all, Watcher of the Spheres. When I first wrote about the impact of Core Set 2021 just days after it was released on MTGO, Lofty Denial and Shacklegeist were already being played. But it wasn't until almost two weeks later that Watcher of the Spheres could be seen in a published decklist, and weeks more until it was seen in every Azorius decklist.

Watcher of the Spheres isn't a Spirit, so there's a cost of breaking the deck's synergies with various cards, but its own synergies make up for it. The biggest draw is the cost-reducing ability for flyers. A large number of cards in the deck benefit from the reduction, and the explosive mana advantage it provides is truly invaluable. Combined with Watcher of the Spheres' ability to grow into a significant threat, like Mausoleum Wanderer, this makes up for the fact it doesn't work perfectly with Spirits.

Why No Collected Company?

With the nerfing of companion Jegantha, the Wellspring, which was a free inclusion in Spirits and one small incentive to play green, Spirits has increasingly embraced a two-color Azorius build, leaving behind the green splash for Collected Company. The adoption of Watcher of the Spheres, which lacks synergy with Collected Company, and has a relatively steep colored mana requirement for turn two, seems to be the nail in the coffin for the green splash.

Compared to Modern, the mana in Pioneer is quite poor, especially for allied-color decks without access to pain lands. The fact that Azorius Spirits, a two-color deck, still uses a couple Mana Confluence, shows just how poor the mana options really are.  There's a reason that historically Pioneer's best aggressive decks have been one color, like Mono-Black and Mono-Red, or at least enemy-colored like Boros Burn. Controlling decks that don't rely so much on curving out early in the game can afford to play multiple colors and more tapped lands, but stumbling out of the gates is a real problem for aggressive strategies. 

Simic - An Alternative Approach

There is a new green version of Spirits that gives up white entirely, but it still doesn't play Collected Company.

Magic: The Gathering TCG Deck - Simic Spirits by RearrangedAS

'Simic Spirits' - constructed deck list and prices for the Magic: The Gathering Trading Card Game from TCGplayer Infinite!

Created By: RearrangedAS

Event: MTGO Pioneer Showcase Challenge - 08/09/2020

Rank: 3

Pioneer

Market Price: $225.77

Cards

Shadowspear

Market Price: $7.78

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206978_200w.jpg

Equipped creature gets +1/+1 and has trample and lifelink.
{1}: Permanents your opponents control lose hexproof and indestructible until end of turn.
Equip {2}

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Cerulean Drake

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.14

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192634_200w.jpg

Flying
Protection from red (This creature can't be blocked, targeted, dealt damage, enchanted, or equipped by anything red.)
Sacrifice Cerulean Drake: Counter target spell that targets you.

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Lofty Denial

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.12

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215611_200w.jpg

Counter target spell unless its controller pays {1}. If you control a creature with flying, counter that spell unless its controller pays {4} instead.

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Blossoming Defense

Color Identity:G

Market Price: $0.25

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/122871_200w.jpg

Target creature you control gets +2/+2 and gains hexproof until end of turn.

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Breeding Pool

Color Identity:G,U

Market Price: $18.80

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/182842_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {G} or {U}.)
As Breeding Pool enters the battlefield, you may pay 2 life. If you don't, it enters the battlefield tapped.

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Heroic Intervention

Color Identity:G

Market Price: $5.30

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215550_200w.jpg

Permanents you control gain hexproof and indestructible until end of turn.

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Botanical Sanctum

Color Identity:G,U

Market Price: $3.07

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/122643_200w.jpg

Botanical Sanctum enters the battlefield tapped unless you control two or fewer other lands.
{T}: Add {G} or {U}.

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Nebelgast Herald

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.29

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216535_200w.jpg

Flash (You may cast this spell any time you could cast an instant.)
Flying
Whenever Nebelgast Herald or another Spirit enters the battlefield under your control, tap target creature an opponent controls.

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Spectral Sailor

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.26

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216411_200w.jpg

Flash (You may cast this spell any time you could cast an instant.)
Flying
{3}{U}: Draw a card.

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Mausoleum Wanderer

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $2.48

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/120513_200w.jpg

Flying
Whenever another Spirit enters the battlefield under your control, Mausoleum Wanderer gets +1/+1 until end of turn.
Sacrifice Mausoleum Wanderer: Counter target instant or sorcery spell unless its controller pays {X}, where X is Mausoleum Wanderer's power.

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Rattlechains

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.55

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216536_200w.jpg

Flash
Flying
When Rattlechains enters the battlefield, target Spirit gains hexproof until end of turn.
You may cast Spirit spells as though they had flash.

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Mystical Dispute

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $1.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/198683_200w.jpg

This spell costs {2} less to cast if it targets a blue spell.
Counter target spell unless its controller pays {3}.

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Siren Stormtamer

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $1.78

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/144877_200w.jpg

Flying
{U}, Sacrifice Siren Stormtamer: Counter target spell or ability that targets you or a creature you control.

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Curious Obsession

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.94

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/216308_200w.jpg

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets +1/+1 and has "Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player, you may draw a card."
At the beginning of your end step, if you didn't attack with a creature this turn, sacrifice Curious Obsession.

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Yavimaya Coast

Color Identity:G,U

Market Price: $0.69

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212481_200w.jpg

{T}: Add {C}.
{T}: Add {G} or {U}. Yavimaya Coast deals 1 damage to you.

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Sixth Sense

Color Identity:G

Market Price: $0.18

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/129530_200w.jpg

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has "Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player, you may draw a card."

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Aether Gust

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.71

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/192535_200w.jpg

Choose target spell or permanent that's red or green. Its owner puts it on the top or bottom of their library.

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Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $14.15

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/199387_200w.jpg

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Mutavault

Market Price: $9.08

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/69900_200w.jpg

{T}: Add {C}.
{1}: Mutavault becomes a 2/2 creature with all creature types until end of turn. It's still a land.

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Island

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.14

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/222819_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {U}.)

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Shapers' Sanctuary

Color Identity:G

Market Price: $0.74

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/142026_200w.jpg

Whenever a creature you control becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, you may draw a card.

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Supreme Phantom

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $1.57

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/169230_200w.jpg

Flying
Other Spirits you control get +1/+1.

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Hashep Oasis

Color Identity:G

Market Price: $0.40

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/222682_200w.jpg

{T}: Add {C}.
{T}, Pay 1 life: Add {G}.
{1}{G}{G}, {T}, Sacrifice a Desert: Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.

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Leaving out Collected Company makes sense given the deck doesn't include the high-power three-mana white plays like Spell Queller and Empyrean Eagle that make the most of Collected Company.

Instead, this build is focused on a faster game plan based around Curious Obsession and Sixth Sense, protecting them with Blossoming Defense and Siren Stormtamer. This build was actually the highest finishing Spirit build of the Showcase, in 3rd place, and is a promising new direction.

In a world without key combo pieces to stop Spell Queller is not so necessary, and may even be a liability against control decks full of removal spells. Instead, going deeper on protection like Blossoming Defense plays back at this removal. The card advantage from Curious Obsession puts immense pressure on control decks, as hitting just a couple times will snowball into a big advantage they may never come back from. These Auras and protection spells are at their worst against aggressive decks, where card advantage is less important and the lord Empyrean Eagle is at its best, but these opponents are now few and far between.

Sideboarding with Azorius

There's something to the Simic build, but at this point I would recommend the more proven Azorius build. One player, "Traft", Top 8'd both the Challenge on Saturday and the Showcase on Sunday, and it's their most recent list that I've used to create a sideboard and matchup guide.

The sideboard is filled with a large suite of disruption, headlined by the powerful color hosers of the past year. Mystical Dispute does a lot of work against the various blue control decks that dominate the metagame. Aether Gust provides a flexible option against Green Devotion that also attacks red decks. Devout Decree further helps against red while also filling in against black aggro. The most interesting inclusion is Ikoria's Light of Hope, which is slowly becoming adopted as a sideboard staple. Against red decks it's primarily a life gain spell, but its +1/+1 ability can counter a burn spell. It also adds enchantment removal, which while not super useful in the metagame, does have utility against Orzhov Sram Auras.

Vs. Mono-Green Devotion

The Walking Ballista ban removed Green Devotion's best tool against Spirits. That leaves just Voracious Hydra and Vivien, Arkbow Ranger as removal, and at sorcery speed they are vulnerable to Rattlechains. Their sorcery speed game plan is also poor against counterspells, so Lofty Denial does a lot of work here—just be sure to use it ASAP before they outpace it with mana. Devotion is unable to block fliers in the air, so their planeswalkers and life total are vulnerable, and the matchup boils down to a race that Spirits is in great position to win. It gets easier after sideboard with access to more Aether Gust and Disdainful Stroke, while their sideboarding options are limited to tutor targets.

+3 Aether Gust
+2 Disdainful Stroke
+1 Shacklegeist

-3 Selfless Spirit
-3 Mausoleum Wanderer

Vs. Niv to Light

Control decks like Niv to Light are the bread and butter matchup for Spirits, but they do have plenty of tools to fight back. If they can trade with removal, they'll eventually bury Spirits with card advantage in the late game. The game plan is to prevent this by judiciously using disruption and carefully measuring out threats. Teferi, Time Raveler shutting down instants is a problem if they can get ahead and protect it, but it will quickly fall to sustained pressure.

Niv to Light is especially vulnerable to counterspells on Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Bring to Light, so sideboarding Mystical Dispute and Disdainful Stroke makes their life even harder. Be aware of Voice of Resurgence, which severely hoses the instant-speed game plan. Spirits has few ways to fight back against it, so you'll have to accept giving them a free creature or two and racing.

+3 Mystical Dispute
+2 Disdainful Stroke

-2 Nebelgast Herald
-2 Shacklegeist
-1 Empyrean Eagle

Vs. Azorius Control

The rise of Azorius Control decks in Modern is what led to Spirits replacing Humans as the format's premier tribal deck in 2018. While it's tougher without Aether Vial and Collected Company, Azorius also has less tools in Pioneer, like no Path to Exile. Mausoleum Wanderer and Rattlechains are fantastic here, while Selfless Spirit and Spell Queller both deal with Supreme Verdict. Their best tool may be the recent addition of Shark Typhoon as a blocker, so be careful to play around it when possible. 

+3 Mystical Dispute
+2 Disdainful Stroke

-2 Nebelgast Herald
-2 Shacklegeist
-1 Empyrean Eagle

Vs. Sultai Delirium

Sultai has a more well-rounded game plan than the blue-based control decks. With cheaper disruption like Fatal Push and Thoughtseize, and being less reliant on haymakers, their strategy is much less vulnerable to counterspells. They're also more capable of racing with creatures or taking over the battlefield with cards like Scavenging Ooze or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

The technology of Polukranos, Unchained, found in the Showcase Top 8 deck that ended up beating Spirits in the quarterfinals, is also an issue. The same game plan of aggression and disruption applies, but playing will require a more nuanced approach. Be aware of Cry of the Carnarium and Languish.

+3 Aether Gust

-2 Nebelgast Herald
-1 Shacklegeist

Vs. Black Aggro

Aggressive decks like Mono-Black Aggro are not what Spirits hopes to see, but it's a winnable race if you can develop the battlefield and counteract their removal. Nebelgast Herald and Shacklegeist can help contain their creatures, while Devout Decree from the sideboard provides some extra help.

+2 Devout Decree
+1 Shacklegeist

-3 Lofty Denial

Vs. Boros Burn

Boros Burn is similar to Black Aggro, except their burn gives more tools in the form of added removal. On the plus side, the sideboard provides a lot more help.

+3 Aether Gust
+2 Light of Hope
+2 Devout Decree

-3 Lofty Denial
-2 Nebelgast Herald
-2 Shacklegeist

Vs. Naya Winota

Winota decks are an interesting matchup, in that they border between aggro and combo, somewhat similarly to Green Devotion. On the plus side, they have access to even less removal spells, but the downside is they are more capable of racing. Eldritch Evolution is vulnerable to counterspells, but there's one big issue in Voice of Resurgence, which may require giving up a token against their key spells.

-4 Rattlechains

+3 Aether Gust
+1 Shacklegeist

Spirits Are Soaring

Spirits leaves the Showcase weekend as one of the biggest success stories after the ban, and is now one of the best options in the field. The rise of control decks in the metagame is a great development for Spirits, and it will succeed as long as these continue to contain the aggressive decks that can be more challenging.