At Grand Prix Denver, the team of Sam Pardee, Matt Nass, and I got second, playing Spirits, Hardened Scales, and Hollow One. We were one of the few teams not playing Humans, because we thought Spirits was just a superior version. Had Unified Constructed rules not been in place, we’d probably have had a U/W deck in there as well, but we felt that Spirits was enough better than Humans that we really wanted it, and it used Path and dual lands, so the two decks weren’t compatible. The only other concession was Horizon Canopy, which Matt Nass couldn’t play in Hardened Scales because of me.
Spirits is excellent right now. At its core it’s a tribal deck, not unlike Humans or Merfolk, and it’s capable of some very fast draws (killing on turn 4 is very doable). It’s also more resilient than most creature decks due to Collected Company, Spell Queller, Moorland Haunt, and hexproof creatures. Top that with a great sideboard and an enjoyable play style (at least to me) and you have the recipe for a great list.
Spirits has most of the strengths of Humans without the weaknesses. Here are the advantages for Spirits:
- People don’t know how to play against you. It’s not even that Humans is easy to play against (though it’s certainly not hard), but more because every Humans list has been the same for the past year and people have played hundreds of games against it. If you play Humans in a tournament, you can be sure that if your opponent has practiced at all, they will know exactly what is in your deck, how to play against it, how to sideboard against you, and so on. For Spirits, this isn’t necessarily the case—people might have a clue what you’re doing (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out), but they won’t have muscle memory for everything, they might not have your deck on a sideboard sheet, and they might not know exactly what your sideboard looks like or how to mulligan against you. It’s also, I believe, a harder deck to play against than Humans.
- You get to play a good sideboard. It’s not that Human’s sideboard is necessarily bad, but it’s more that for every card in Humans you have to think, “OK, this is the effect I want—how can I get it on a creature?” and for Spirits you just have to ask, “OK, this is the effect I want—what’s the best way to get it?” Sometimes those align (in the case of Thalia and Teeg, for example), but sometimes they don’t (Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, counterspells). Having to play Kataki instead of Stony Silence is simply not good, and there’s no real parallel to Rest in Peace. With Spirits, you get to play whatever you want as long as it’s Bant.
- You get to play Path to Exile. Path is a very good card that Humans can’t reliably cast or really afford to have.
- It’s novel and way more fun. Obviously this is a personal thing, and I wouldn’t begrudge you for thinking that Humans is more fun (though I am judging you and you are wrong), but I enjoy switching up the play style from time to time.
Here is the list I played in Detroit, which was based on the list Ondrej Strasky Top 4’d a GP with:
A lot of the slots in the deck are fixed—you want four of the good Spirits, and you want four Hierarch, Path, and Company. The flex slots are Aether Vial, Phantasmal Image, Geist of Saint Traft, and Selfless Spirit.
I chose to play a mix of those cards. Three Vial might look weird, and I just copied Ondrej’s list, but I can get behind it. I think you want a decent number of lands for Collected Company, but you’re also a fast deck with four Hierarchs, so you can’t afford to play too many mana sources. In many matchups, Vial is better than Hierarch, but Hierarch is significantly better in multiples and a much better draw late game, as well as a very poor but not inconsequential Collected Company hit, so I think it’s probably better than Vial. For a while, I toyed with the idea of a fourth Vial in the board for control and the mirror, and it’s not really out of the question for me.
Geist is a role player. It’s one of the cards I side out most since it’s bad when it’s bad, but when it’s good it’s really good. It can win the game single-handedly versus a variety of archetypes, and you have enough lords and Hierarchs to make sure that they can’t just block it with a Snapcaster Mage.
Selfless Spirit is also a role player, but it has wider applications than Geist. Against aggro decks, it serves as a way to win combat—it’s a nightmare to play Humans against a Selfless Spirit. Against control, it serves as Supreme Verdict insurance. Against combo, it serves as a way to protect your Spell Quellers and hatebears. Because of this, you don’t side it out nearly as often, as it has relevant applications against a lot of different decks.
Phantasmal Image is a card that is very good when it works but doesn’t have as many great targets as it does in Humans. In Humans, you’re almost always happy to copy anything. Here, you want to be able to copy Drogskol Captain or Supreme Phantom. One of the key interactions in the deck is that if you have two Drogskol Captains, then they are both given hexproof and that’s easy to accomplish with Phantasmal Image (at which point the drawback on Image is nonexistent). It also works with Spell Queller, but you need to be able to Vial it in, or Collected Company for it.
The card I don’t play, and that most people do (Ondrej had one, which seems to be on the low end) is Rattlechains. I don’t think Rattlechains is bad, and I had two at one point, but I think that you have to cut something from the deck, and Rattlechains is the worst card. I wish that I had Rattlechains in a lot of spots—especially post-board when I’m bringing in counterspells and want to keep mana up—but I don’t think you can afford to play it. If you do find room for it, it’s certainly a good card.
The mana base is not the best, but it’s hard to fix because there are multiple things you have to watch out for. You need to be careful not to take too much damage, so you can’t max out on Canopy/fetch/dual, but you also need your fourth land to come into play untapped for Collected Company. On top of that, you’re forced to play some green-white lands because of Horizon Canopy, but this is actually the worst combination. You also can’t max on Cavern because you have spells you want to play post-board. Finally, the colorless lands (Moorland Haunt and Mutavault) are really good in this deck, but you can only afford one. This Cavern/Seachrome Coast/Botanical Sanctum mix was the one I thought was the best, but there might be a better configuration.
Here are some tips to playing the deck:
- Unless you’re playing against a specific combo deck (say, KCI), or you’re in a position where you’re already going to win with what’s in play, be trigger happy with your Spell Quellers. You don’t have a ton of instants, so you can’t just do something else instead, which means that it’s a huge issue when you leave Spell Queller mana up and then decide not to cast it. If I’m playing versus Humans, for example, I’ll usually counter literally any spell they play on my Spell Queller turn.
- Don’t forget that pumping Mausoleum Wanderer with lords makes it so that people have to pay more.
- You can Vial in Phantasmal Image to copy an Angel token generated by Geist, resulting in a 4/4 flyer that will not die at end of turn.
- Against control decks, never fetch basics. They will Path and Field of Ruin you so you need to be able to search for those, which means that you should always get duals even if you don’t need the mana.
- Against aggro decks, fetch basics a lot of the time. The colored mana requirements in this deck aren’t steep, so it’s better to preserve some life than to get an extra dual “just in case.”
- If your opponent taps an Aether Vial on 2, you might have to cast your Spell Queller or Collected Company in response. Otherwise, they can put Meddling Mage into play and you can’t respond.
- Be wary of a Vialed-in Phantasmal Image on your Spell Queller.
- Consider chump-blocking with Hierarch to make a Moorland Haunt token.
- Be careful with Collected Company into Phantasmal Image—you can copy anything that was already in play, but you can’t copy the other card you got from Company.
- Remember that you can Phantasmal Image your opponent’s creatures. It’s very relevant in the mirror or against Humans since you can copy Reflector Mage (though it’s usually better to copy one of your lords).
- If you’re playing the mirror, remember that Rattlechains can target any Spirit, so it can kill an opposing Phantasmal Image. I don’t play Rattlechains, but you might, and your opponent might.
- You need to do some math when playing this deck. You don’t have to be a mathematician, and your best “guestimate” is fine for Collected Company hits, but you can’t be lazy and you have to at least think about it. Sometimes people over-attack and leave themselves dead to a Reflector Mage when they had more than enough lethal damage the following turn anyway.
Here is some useful top-of-your-head math:
- Chance of casting Company into Spell Queller if you have drawn 0 so far: ~40%
- Chance of casting Company into Spell Queller if you’ve drawn 1: ~30%
- Chance of casting Company into Spell Queller or Image (assuming 1 -Queller in play): ~60%
- Chance of hitting a lord: ~60%
- Chance of hitting a lord or an Image (assuming that a normal distribution of lords already seen, but you need at least a lord in play): ~70%
- Chance of hitting two lords: ~20%
- Chance of hitting two lords or Image: ~30%
Sometimes, you’re in a spot where you can cast Company and kill them if you hit two lords or Images, or you can wait and try to Spell Queller their spell to win next turn. In those scenarios, you’re more likely to hit a single Spell Queller than a lord, so it’s better to pass.
My sideboard was a little different than Ondrej’s. I liked Dromoka’s Command a fair bit—it served as extra removal, but it’s also a great card against Burn and Hardened Scales (you can kill something + the Scales, or kill an Eidolon and prevent a burn spell), and it lets you kill Worship in the mirror.
I honestly don’t know whether it’s good to have Worship or not. I think a lot of people will play as if you have Worship, since most people had it before, which means they’ll either leave in or bring in cards that deal with it (Reclamation Sage, Collective Brutality, Dromoka’s Command), at which point it’s not great. It’s still capable of winning the game on its own, though, and it works well with hexproof creatures (you take out Geist in most matchups it would come in, but you still have Drogskol Captains). It’s possible you should have two Worships in the board, but I also like having a Command or two so you aren’t cold to theirs.
One card people play I really don’t like is Damping Sphere. You don’t need a card that wins on its own in these matchups—you already have game. You just want a little help. I’d much rather have a counterspell of some sort.
The counterspell mix is up in the air, but I mostly just hate Unified Will. It only takes one time that you cast it and get Snapcaster-Pathed in response for you to denounce the card forever, and even decks like KCI can randomly have Sai against you. I like Disdainful Stroke better, but there are relevant spells it doesn’t counter (Oblivion Stone, Path, Snapcaster, Engineered Explosives), so I don’t want to play three of them. In the end, I resigned myself to one Unified Will. It’s important not to play Negate, though, because you need to be able to counter Baneslayer Angel and Lyra Dawnbringer. If you’re looking for a card specifically against Tron, I think Ceremonious Rejection is better than Damping Sphere.
I think Humans is a good matchup. It’s not overwhelmingly in your favor or anything, but you just have more recourse than they do. You’ll lose to most of their nut draws, but your nut draws aren’t shabby either, and if both players draw average, you will win. They usually have one big creature and a bunch of small creatures, and you have a bunch of big creatures in the mid-late game, so they can’t even attack, and when you’re ready to swing you just kill them because they can’t block your flyers very well.
The most important card in this matchup is Aether Vial. If they don’t have it, then it becomes hard for them to win. Having Vial lets them get around Spell Queller and lets you get around Meddling Mage and Reflector Mage, so whoever has Vial has an edge. I just think you’re the better deck if no one has Vial.
U/W is a slightly favorable matchup, but it’s close. You don’t have many counterspells, even post-board, and often you have to overextend into a sweeper and hope they don’t have it. Sometimes they also steal a game with Baneslayer/Lyra. At the same time, you can just win by sticking a Geist in play, which is very easy to do if you draw a Cavern or an Aether Vial. If they miracle an early Terminus it’s almost impossible to win, so you shouldn’t go to great lengths to play around it. If they never miracle a Terminus, then I think the game should favor you.
Jeskai has Verdict instead of Terminus, which is great for you game 1 (since you can Spell Queller it and it’s easier to play around with Company or Vial), but at the same time they have Bolts and Helixes, which are much better than any removal or counterspells U/W has, especially when you bring in hatebears. Overall, it’s pretty much a wash, as Jeskai is easier pre-board and harder post-board, comparatively.
This is a very good matchup. In game 1 they are favored—you need Spell Queller to win—but games 2 and 3 you have so much strong hate that it’s almost impossible to lose. You don’t need to pressure them in any way—just keep playing hate pieces and save your counterspells for the things that deal with hate pieces if you can, and for Ironworks if you can’t. They might bring in Sai, but I don’t think that’s a big deal since you can block all the Spirits anyway and your creatures grow big enough that you don’t mind attacking into it.
This is a bad matchup game 1 and an even matchup game 2. Overall it’s slightly unfavored—you have to watch out for Oblivion Stone and Walking Ballista. This is a matchup where I think Unified Will is better than Disdainful Stroke, since they almost never have a creature and it counters both things you want to counter. Remember that Selfless Spirit counters Oblivion Stone.
If you face another matchup, here are general guidelines:
- Geist is bad versus decks that can block it.
- Path is bad versus decks with no creatures.
- Aether Vial is bad if you’re bringing in Stony Silence.
- Collected Company is bad in matchups where you’re taking out too many creatures, where you don’t need to go big/wide, and when you bring in Thalias and Teeg (except against control).
- Phantasmal Image is bad versus decks where you’re not trying to race and it can get stuck in your hand. It’s good in most game 1s, as it’s much more likely to be a race (versus KCI or Tron, for example), but in game 2s you don’t need to kill them quickly anymore as you have a ton of answers.
- Drogskol Captain is the next card to come out in combo matchups.
- Counterspells are good versus combo and U/W-based control decks.
- Geist is good versus combo and control alike.
- Stony Silence is great versus everybody that you think it can be good against (Tron, KCI, Scales, Affinity)
- Rest in Peace is great versus dedicated graveyard decks (Bridgevine, Hollow One) but I wouldn’t bring it in versus incidental graveyard decks (Jeskai, Hardened Scales).
- Dromoka’s Command is good if they have must-kill creatures, enchantments, or if they’re playing Burn.
Overall, I think this deck is really good, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I think you’re even to slightly favored versus most of the top decks in the field, and you are fast enough to have game against anything else. I loved playing it at the GP and I would definitely play it again if I was going to a Modern tournament. As for what list—well, I liked the one I played, and there are no changes I think must be made, but the things I would consider would be Worships in the sideboard and a different mana base, if you’re smart enough to come up with something else.