After week one of Eldritch Moon Standard, Bant Company came out on top as the clear deck to beat, but W/U Spirits proved it is also a contender, putting eight copies (12.5%) into the Top 64 in the Columbus Open.
Spirits as a tribe are well-suited to playing aggressively or defensively. They have evasion, which makes them great at aggression. They also have flash, which makes them great at playing the reactive game. By being able to play almost entirely at instant speed, the deck gets to play Counterspells and instant-speed removal at little cost. This makes cards like Ojutai's Command and Clash of Wills especially powerful.
While most of the eight spirits lists shared a lot of similarities, there seems to be a natural divide between "Control Spirits" and "Tempo Spirits." Control Spirits (played by Hoogland, Juliano, and Morelli) plays more spells and fewer creatures, opting for cards like Planar Outburst, Stasis Snare, Meandering River, and more countermagic. In contrast, Tempo Spirits (played by Warner, Felicetti, Fortini, and Fang) plays more cards like Reflector Mage, Nebelgast Herald, and Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit. Carey was kind of a mashup of the two, hedging a little in each direction. Given the amount of overlap between Tempo Spirits and Control Spirits, each can essentially transition into the other after 'board if they want to.
Jeff Hoogland and Christopher Juliano played the exact same 75 of "Control Spirits:"
Paul Morelli didn't differ from their lists by much, but he had a few notable differences.
The most notable difference is Morelli's inclusion of Bygone Bishop and Thunderclap Wyvern over two Anticipate, an Essence Flux, and an extra Stasis Snare. He also ran a single copy of Unsubstantiate whereas Hoogland and Juliano ran a single Scatter to the Winds, but this is a small difference. Anticipate offers a smoother early draw, allowing Hoogland/Juliano to hit land drops and find spells. Later on, Bygone Bishop does a lot more work, generating clues for each creature played. These clues also play great with the flash nature of the deck because if the opponent doesn't do anything on their turn that you want to counter, you can just reload by sacrificing clues on their end step.
Thunderclap Wyvern can skew combat in a big way. Just the threat of it makes attacking and blocking a daunting proposition for the opponent. Between Thunderclap Wyvern Wyvern and Archangel Avacyn, the opponent is forced to have an exceptional trump in order to engage in combat while the Spirits deck has untapped lands (and when doesn't it have untapped lands?).
Xavier Warner, Joe Fortini, and Ted Felicetti played nearly identical versions of "Tempo Spirits:"
As I said before, the primary difference between Control Spirits and Tempo Spirits is the presence of more removal/counters or creatures that tap/bounce other creatures.
My inclination is that Reflector Mage is worth it, Nebelgast Herald is probably worth it, and Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit is probably not worth it.
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit is great on turn two, but the mana is awkward enough that there will be times where you have Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and want to play it on turn two but don't have double white. There will also be other times when you don't have a Port Town and are forced to decide between playing a first-turn Mausoleum Wanderer or a second-turn Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit. Also if you draw Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit later in the game, it won't help you much since most of its value comes from its bolster trigger, which only helps if it comes down before your other creatures. Lastly, Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit doesn't fly. Reflector Mage not flying is not that big of a deal because the bounce effect helps with tempo and the body can do a good job of playing defense to assist the airforce in winning the race. Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit does not block as well or come with a bounce effect tacked on. These are all the reasons I suspect people will end up cutting Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit from their Spirit lists.
Nebelgast Herald, on the other hand, has some useful applications and fewer drawbacks. Nebelgast Herald is excellent in race situations and fits right into the flash and flying themes of the deck. When I first started practicing with W/U Spirits I expected it to get outraced by the Humans decks, but I was surprised by how Nebelgast Herald and Reflector Mage combined with a few other fliers was enough to consistently outrace the "fastest deck in the format". Yes, Humans are faster in a vacuum, but not in the matchup against Tempo Spirits. Herald also provides additional protection against lifelink creatures such as Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, Ormendahl, or Gisela, the Broken Blade, and can prevent from an Archangel Avacyn ambush.
The downside of Nebelgast Herald is that it's a two-power creature for three mana, which is pretty lackluster against creature-light decks. It's also a one-toughness creature, which makes the deck even more vulnerable to cheap burn spells, especially Aerial Volley. While I'm inclined to cut Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and slot in Nebelgast Herald, it's debatable. The undebatable inclusion if you go the tempo route is Reflector Mage. It's the primary incentive to move away from control.
The unique aspect of the Warner/Felicetti/Fortini build is their inclusion of Secure the Wastes (one maindeck, one sideboard) and Westvale Abbey. This combination provides a powerful alternate win condition that none of the other Spirits lists have. It's unclear whether the colorless land is worth the cost of hurting the mana base, a base that is already on the fence about whether to include Meandering River, but the effect is certainly welcome. It's also unclear whether it's better than Foundry of the Consuls. If Spirit Mirrors become the norm, Foundry of the Consuls might be better. Ormendahl does not exactly want to face Reflector Mage, Nebelgast Herald, Unsubstantiate, or Stasis Snare. The demon can't even gain life by attacking into a Selfless Spirit (or Ojutai's Command returning Selfless Spirit) since the Spirit can simply block and then sacrifice itself to prevent the damage (and life gain) from happening. This same disappearing act can work for any creature in combination with an Essence Flux. All these factors lead me to believe Westvale Abbey is probably not the place to be, although I'm not certain yet.
Harrison Fang had a slightly different take on Tempo Spirits:
Fang had mostly the same shell except he went the Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit route instead of the Westvale Abbey route. He also only played 23 total lands (compared to the 25 everyone else played). This was possible because he cut two of the Archangel Avacyns, two of the Ojutai's Commands, and replaced them with the full four (!) copies of Essence Flux. Fang didn't come to mess around. He was the most aggressive of the eight spirit lists.
Essence Flux provides an interesting angle to the Spirit deck. It can protect any of the creatures from a removal spell for just one mana and leaves a small benefit behind if the creature was a Spirit. It works great with Reflector Mage, Nebelgast Herald, and Archangel Avacyn too because it re-triggers their enters-the-battlefield ability. It will also trigger Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit's bolster ability. While it can save Spell Queller from a removal spell, it doesn't work favorably with the ability due to how stacking works and because the Spell Queller's exile ability is mandatory. Still the card provides a lot of utility and can be one of the most annoying cards in the deck to play against. Hoogland/Juliano even found the effect useful enough to run a single copy in their Control Spirits list. Nobody else ran it though, so whether the correct number is zero, one, four, or none of the above has yet to be determined.
Bryan Carey's list was definitely a Tempo Spirits list rather than a Control Spirits list, but unlike the rest of the Tempo Spirits lists, Carey's list did not contain Nebelgast Herald.
Instead of running Nebalgast Herald, Carey ran Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. A few of the other lists ran one copy of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the sideboard (Fang ran two in his sideboard), but Carey was the only player to run Gideon, Ally of Zendikar main deck – and he ran three copies! Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is quite the potent offensive weapon, especially in a deck that can very effectively utilize all three abilities.
Carey also ran three copies of Stasis Snare, much like the Control Spirits variant run by Hoogland/Juliano and also Morelli. Stasis Snare is an interesting card. It can be great against an opposing Archangel Avacyn, but it could also Backfire in the face of Dromoka's Command (from Bant Company/W/G Tokens) or Essence Flux (from W/U Spirits). It's a high-risk, high-reward type card. It's a little tricky on the mana, which explains why all four Spirits lists running Stasis Snare also happened to be the four lists that ran Meandering River. Fang chose to run two copies of Declaration in Stone instead, likely to leave himself enchantment-free against Dromoka's Command decks. This decision makes sense given the presence of Nebelgast Herald in Fang's list, which helps to provide a bit of instant speed interaction that is lost by omitting Stasis Snare.
The last card of interest is Clash of Wills. The control decks all ran three copies while the Warner/Felicetti/Fortini list only ran two copies. Fang and Carey cut them altogether. The more sorcery-speed cards you have in your deck (Reflector Mage, Declaration in Stone, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, etc), the worse Clash of Wills gets. The reverse is the case when you have mostly instant-speed cards in your deck that allow you to nearly always hold up all your mana on the opponent's turn, ready to fire off a Clash of Wills of any amount necessary at any moment. Even in the tempo builds it may be correct to run some number of them. Otherwise you're relying on Spell Queller to do all the work!
As far as sideboards are concerned, there was a pretty wide mix of cards across the eight builds, but the following showed up heavily across control/tempo builds:
2 Bygone Bishop (total in 75)
1-3 Declaration in Stone
0-2 Blessed Alliance
1-3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (exclusively in Tempo builds)
0-2 Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
2-3 Negate (across all builds)
1-2 Planar Outburst in tempo builds, 2 main + 2 sideboard in control builds
2 Silkwrap across all control builds
2-3 Stasis Snare between main and side across all builds
1-2 Tragic Arrogance
2 Secure the Wastes total (in the Westvale Abbey builds)
1-2 Summary Dismissal
There is some room to innovate with W/U Spirits and the two major iterations of the deck, which are mostly defined by the presence or absence of Reflector Mage. In order to answer the question of which build is best, let's consider the current state of the metagame and predict what it will look like next.
After the Columbus Open, here is where I expect the metagame to be this weekend at SCG Baltimore:
R/G Goggles Ramp
U/R Eldrazi Emerge
Bant Company is clearly the deck to beat, but the metagame is diverse enough that you can't just play an anti-Collected Company deck. Due to Ali's success, Emrakul, the Promised End is starting to catch on. Voldaren Pariah is still flying under the radar. And people are trying to play spirit- or angel-based control instead of true control, which I think is a mistake and will not be what happens at the Pro Tour, though it could continue through this weekend's Open.
Here are the directions I expect the metagame to move in the next two weeks:
Obviously the Baltimore Open this weekend will change some things and cause me to re-evaluate, but right now this is the way I see things moving and this is the list I would play this weekend if I were to play spirits:
Unfortunately I don't think the metagame is particularly favorable for this deck, but if you're looking for something fun to play at FNM, here's a deck I've been working on that utilizes Sigarda's Aid, Relic Seeker, and Lone Rider to great effect: