Inner Workings: Spirit Aggro
In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we'll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it's the turn of a tribal deck that reached critical mass with a new, crucial addition on Core Set 2019, and it's been making strides ever since.
For an avid MTGO player such a myself, the word "tribal" is inextricably associated with the specific format, Tribal Wars (where one third of your deck, rounded down, must be composed by creatures sharing at least one subtype, and you can't have a sideboard). The term actually refers to a wider concept in Magic, defining a strategy where you gain various kinds of advantage by populating your board with creatures of the same type that interact favorably with each other. It's not necessarily an aggro plan (Elves is mostly a ramp deck), but oftentimes it is, as the many Goblin and Merfolk decks from across Magic history can testify.
The current Modern meta has several tribal decks running around, most notably Humans. The latest to join the fold hails from a very old, quite large tribe that until now has never been considered effective enough to take over a large share of the nonland slots of a whole deck; that is, until Core Set 2019 gave them the final push with a new, fundamental toy.
Here's the genre of build that directly ensued from that printing.
Spirit Aggro by Zheng Peiyuan, 1st place at Grand Prix Atlanta 2018
|3Botanical Sanctum||4Drogskol Captain||3Aether Vial|
|1Breeding Pool||1Geist of Saint Traft||4Collected Company|
|1Cavern of Souls||4Mausoleum Wanderer||2Path to Exile|
|3Flooded Strand||4Noble Hierarch|
|3Horizon Canopy||3Reflector Mage|
|2Misty Rainforest||4Spell Queller|
|1Moorland Haunt||4Supreme Phantom|
|1Disdainful Stroke||1Dromoka's Command||1Geist of Saint Traft|
|2Knight of Autumn||3Rest in Peace||2Stony Silence|
|2Thalia, Guardian of Thraben||1Tormod's Crypt||1Unified Will|
A linear aggro strategy wants to build up inevitability through beaters that become more and more threatening or effective the more you develop your battlefield. Sliver and Ally are two tribes that inherently work that way, because every single one of their creatures makes the others a little bit better. Other tribes that aren't engineered in such fashion must rely on their so-called "lords", a concept that dates back to, and take its name from, Limited Edition Alpha's very own Lord of Atlantis.
Drogskol Captain was the first Spirit lord, back in Dark Ascension (yes, we're going to ignore the pathetic irrelevancy of Innistrad's Battleground Geist and Gallows Warden). It comes with the signature anthem effect and adds a very important ability to each surrounding Spirit. The Captain makes a compelling argument in favor of the tribe, but one lord doesn't make a battleplan; we had to wait six more years to see its perfect complement in the faster, leaner, even slightly more resilient Supreme Phantom (after all, the Captain dies to Pyroclasm, Supreme Phantom doesn't). Both hint at one essential characteristic of the deck: Spirit is a flying tribe, so the more of them we'll have around, the more evasive we'll be.
Still, two lords are far from the amount linear tribes like Merfolk use to play. Why not copy one of them with Phantasmal Image, then? An especially vital move in this case, since by repeating Drogskol Captain's effect you can hide your entire team under a hexproof shield, something that even Shalai, Voice of Plenty can't do, for instance (the Faerie lord Scion of Oona can, but hexproof is always better than shroud).
To round up the spectral numbers, Rattlechains is sort of a minor lord; it doesn't pump its siblings but provides universal flash, which is always a great tempo gainer, not to mention a way to dribble sorcery-speed removal (akin to haste, in a way) and to mess with the combat phase. Rattlechains is also useful to counter spot removal targeted on Drogskol Captain. In fact, some Spirit lists that emphasize protection run multiple copies of the little ghost; or even Kira, Great Glass-Spinner to double down on the Spirits' elusiveness.
Zheng's list contains a whopping twenty tribal creatures, which would make it legal in Tribal Wars. Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller are both featured in full playsets, the former being the tribe's Champion of the Parish with a side of Cursecatcher (so a great one-drop in both regards), the latter adding built-in disruption to the proceedings, making Spirit Aggro a tempo fighter like few others in the meta.
Selfless Spirit is yet another early flyer, but later it provides some degree of safety against board sweepers, which are the deck's main nemeses, to nobody's surprise.
Unexpectedly enough, one of the most celebrated Spirits, Geist of Saint Traft, is only marginally present in these builds (Zheng has only one copy main, another on the side). One reason is the fact that it doesn't fly, so it might just be the one creature the opponent is able to block, thus defying its whole purpose. Another reason is that once Drogskol Captain comes along, Geist of Saint Traft's natural hexproof becomes less relevant.
Green is splashed uniquely for two cards, both aiming to maximize the deck's ability to haunt the board with ghostly menaces as soon as possible. Noble Hierarch does just that, accelerating into one of the twelve three-mana creatures on turn two, while also boosting the occasional lone Spirit attack and fixing the mana. Collective Company is a mid-game card advantage engine, able to hit every creature in the deck.
Aether Vial is typical in creature-heavy builds, and it's taken directly from Merfolk archetypes. More Spirits per early turn, less counterable. It's worth the downside of being a terrible late-game draw.
The off-tribe Reflector Mage doesn't benefit from any of the Spirits' abilities, but greatly contributes to the tempo game the deck is playing, just like it does in the more type-appropriate Human builds. Path to Exile is just what you run for removal when you have access to white.
The Mana Base
The curve is fairly low (Collected Company being the only card with a CMC higher than three), so the deck can get away with a low land count and a high number of fetch lands. Zheng's list is mostly Azorius-colored, but the green splash is treated very seriously because, as it's often the case, it provides both the mana fixing and the acceleration – i.e. you want to be able to open with a turn-one Noble Hierarch when you don't open with a turn-one Mausoleum Wanderer. Which is why there's nine pure green sources against six white sources, despite almost half the creatures requiring white.
Horizon Canopy and Cavern of Souls are lands you always want to see in fast creature decks, to thin the library, fix the mana and trump countermagic. Moorland Haunt is a nice source of additional Spirits, but tapping only for colorless makes it too risky to run in multiples.
Alongside obvious haters like Rest in Peace and Stony Silence, we have a series of options that most openly take advantage of a 30-creature shell: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben against Storm; Unified Will against combo; Worship against aggro.
The green presence opens the road for two very versatile cards: the newly printed Knight of Autumn, which has been immediately well-received by Modern as a valuable way to repack lifegaining and artifact/enchantment hate in fewer sideboard slots; and the similarly multi-purpose Dromoka's Command.
PICTURE: Disdainful Stroke
The reprinting of Disdainful Stroke in Guilds of Ravnica seems to have reminded players of its strategic value against those decks that are more prone to rely on expensive spells, like Ad Nauseam or Scapeshift, or Collected Company itself.
In summation, Spirits make for a consistent aggro deck that develops quickly, hits in the air, and it's hard to deal with thanks to the various protective effects it packs. Will we be seeing more tribes like that emerging from the casual crowd to ascend into the competitive realm? Possibly, strictly depending on new releases. But even with all the fresh help they can get, some of them looks more likely than others.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
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