What’s good, Spirit Squad!

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to convince all of you that Azorius Spirits is in a fantastic place within the Pioneer metagame, and this has absolutely turned out to be true. In the last month alone, Azorius Spirits has won a Regional Championship, Top 8’ed multiple others, and has continued to put up stellar results in Magic Online events like weekend Pioneer challenges and even the Pioneer Showcase challenge events. All of this has led to the deck having an overall 57% win rate in the format, which is absolutely absurd.

What these results and metagame numbers don’t tell us is WHY Spirits is winning so much.

OK, so you and six other people got good with a tempo deck. And?

Enter: the Belcher Theory.

For context, the Belcher Theory is something that’s always existed in competitive games, but was outlined by Cedric Phillips in the context of Magic: the Gathering. What it means is that, when playing large or high-stakes tournaments with lots of rounds, playing a deck that’s 50-50 against most of the other decks is not the most effective way to win that tournament.

Instead, if you’re looking to win a tournament, you’re better off playing a deck that has a lot of matchups that are either 70-30 or 30-70, and hoping to dodge the bad matchups. A perfect example of a deck that follows this theory is Belcher Combo.

Belcher Combo decks look to play and activate their namesake card, Goblin Charbelcher, on either Turn 1 (in Legacy or Vintage) or 2 (Modern), but without actually playing any land cards in their deck so that the activation is always doing lethal damage to the opponent. This strategy is very powerful, but also very easy to stop with a single piece of counter magic like Force of Will, Force of Negation, or even a Spell Pierce.

But not every player plays Blue cards. So you end up with a bunch of matchups that you’re super likely to win (non-Blue matchups) and matchups that you’re going to have a miserable time against (decks with said counterspells).

While Belcher itself isn’t a good deck in any format, it’s true that it has the power and explosiveness to take a lucky player to some very high heights, and that’s just not something you can do with a deck like Rakdos Midrange in Pioneer or 4-Color Control in Modern. But Spirits isn’t anything like Belcher.

While Spirits and Belcher are almost exact opposites, the way they approach a metagame breakdown is actually super-similar. Here’s what the Pioneer metagame looks like right now:

Listed above are the top 10 most-played decks over the past 2 weeks. While Spirits isn’t anywhere near as slanted as Belcher in its matchup spreads, there are some lopsided matchups and some bad matchups that are a lot more salvageable than it’ll look like when you first start playing with Spirits. Check this out:

Rakdos Midrange: 45-55, they’re slightly favored.
Mono-Green Devotion: 65-35, we’ve very favored
Rakdos Sacrifice: 45-55, they’re slightly favored.
Mono-White Humans: 45-55, they’re slightly favored.
Azorius Control: 60-40, we’re favored.
Spirits: mirror matches are 50-50.
Abzan Greasefang: 80-20, we’re absurdly favored.
Hidden Strings: 80-20, we’re absurdly favored.
5C Fires of Invention: 80-20, we’re absurdly favored.
Esper Control (Lotus Field Control): 65-35, we’re very favored.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t decks that stomp us. Izzet Phoenix, for example, is a matchup I rate at 35-65 and Mono-Red Aggro is even worse, at a 30-70 rate. Neither of these decks is popular enough to be a Top 10 deck right now, but these are still things that it’s good to be aware of.

OK, so we have numbers. How does this help me play my games?

It doesn’t, and that’s the first thing I like to acknowledge about matchup spreads. The numbers above are assuming that you’re playing Spirits with an average level of skill, and it’s 100% important to know that, unlike Belcher, Spirits is an extremely interactive deck that rewards experience. These spreads could quite literally vary by up to 15% based on your experience.

One common example is that a lot of Spirits pilots have issues with the Gruul Vehicles matchup, which tracks on paper for a few reasons: all of their Creatures are bigger than all of our Creatures, Reckless Stormseeker ensures that they’re faster than we are, and they play tons of Red removal like Bonecrusher Giant‘s Stomp and Obliterating Bolt in the main… but also both Rending Volley and Fry in the board. However, with patience and experience I’ve found it to be a matchup I win very consistently by just playing around their removal and gauging which of their options is most important for us to be dealing with on any given turn.

This is the part where you bore me with numbers, isn’t it?

You guessed it! But I’ll keep it relatively brief. To explain the Belcher Theory with numbers, let’s compare Rakdos Midrange, the best deck in Pioneer, to Spirits, the deck we’re actually talking about today.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which you’re playing a 9-round tournament with Rakdos Midrange, and this is a deck that’s 50-50 vs. nearly everything. You do have some 40-60 matchups and some 60-40 matchups, but very close to 50-50 is the general Rakdos experience. Assuming this is true, your average experience will be that you win 4.5 out of every 9 rounds. We can round up and say you’re getting a 5-4 record on average, because you’re playing the best deck or because you’re better-than-average or whatever help you to sleep at night after reading this paragraph.

A 5-4 isn’t good enough to Top 8 any event.

However, if you take a look at a more polarized deck like Spirits, there are a few matchups that are slightly unfavored near the top of the meta, but you also have some absurdly favored matchups as well. This means that you’ll have some days where you run into things you just don’t ever wanna see, like Izzet Phoenix or Mono-Red Aggro and you’ll have a 2-7 kind of day, but you’ll also have some days where you play against Mono-Green 4 times in an event and Greasefang once and you’ll have the easiest 7-2 of your life.

A 7-2 is good enough to Top 8 a lot of events.

What ends up happening is that, assuming average skill, a person playing the deck that 5-4’s every time will have a very positive record but will ultimately miss Top 8 a lot more often than not. The Spirits player, however, will have some of those 2-7 days and some of those 7-2 days, and those 7-2 days will carry them to a Top 8 a lot more often than the 0 times the Rakdos player here is projected to.

But that’s just a basic version of the theory, and doesn’t account for how often you’re actually going to see the good matchups that create those 7-2 days.

*superhero TV show transition noise*

Let’s go back to that graphic that shows the Top 10 most-played decks. Since we do know what to expect from the Pioneer meta, we can make a more educated guess on how often we’ll see good matchups vs. bad ones!

Adding up all of their percentages, we come up with a total of 69.4% of the Pioneer metagame being taken up by the Top 10 decks (we can say 70 for nice, even numbers). A little bit of math, and we come up with an end result of the encounters you’d get from an average tournament with 9 rounds:

Absurdly favored: 14.7%, so either 1 or 2 of your 9 rounds
Very favored: 9.1%, so probably 1 of your 9 rounds
Even: 5.6%, so roughly 1 every 2 tournaments
Slightly unfavored: 30%, so roughly 3 of your 9 rounds
Unknown: 30%, so roughly 3 of your 9 rounds

…and now we see more of why Spirits is doing so well in Pioneer!

The decks that we’re absolute dogs to aren’t in the Top 10 most played decks right now because they’re weak against too many of the other top decks, and pilots don’t wanna play “something that only beats Spirits” when we only take up 5.6% of the Pioneer meta.

So we get to enjoy a meta in which we can expect to have 3 easy rounds, 3 rounds that we can focus on improving our matchups against, and 3 rounds in which really anything can happen.

This is why most Spirits lists will have at least 4 spots that are dedicated to dealing with Rakdos Midrange, usually Wedding Announcement, as it’s both the most popular deck in all of Pioneer (in 9 rounds, you can expect to face between 1 and 2 Rakdos Midrange pilots) and it fits that “matchups we can focus on improving” description. Knowing what the metagame looks like and what you can expect gives you the ability to tune those matchups that can be improved, and with luck, skill, and likely both, you can win 2 out of those 3 unfavorable matchups.

As for the unknown matchups, the good part of playing specifically Spirits is that counterspells typically serve as nightmare fuel for people who are playing off-meta decks since a lot of them are the decks that are trying to do something cool or unique to attack the meta from an angle, since most of these decks are trying to either play cool things backed up by removal (Omnath Midrange piles, Dimir Control, and Izzet decks fit this description), a combo deck (Rona decks, Neoform, and Auras), or Creature decks that try to do something unique against both Rakdos and Green decks (Mono-Red Aggro, Boros Convoke, and Angels go here).

If you look at the above matchups that fit into the 30% of unknown stuff, of the examples I’ve listed here only Izzet Decks and Mono-Red Aggro are decks we’re projected to lose against more than 55% of the time. So that’s another 30% of the meta that almost always favors Spirits players, even if it’s still truly unknown. On an average day, we can assume that 2 of those 3 unknown decks are decks we’ll win against most of the time.

Now we finally have a more complete picture of what we can expect on an average day.

If you win 2 of your 3 matchups in that “unknown” tier, and can manage to win 2 of your 3 matchups in the “slightly unfavorable” tier, all you have to do is not fumble any of your 3 easier matchups and you have an AVERAGE of a 7-2 result!

Of course, this isn’t quite as easy as point-and-click, since Spirits is a very interactive deck, but this is why The Belcher Theory applies so well to Spirits in the Pioneer meta right now, and why Spirits is winning so much. I hope this gave y’all some insight as to both what the Pioneer meta looks like and why Spirits is doing so well, and I’ll see y’all on the next one!

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