Here's everything you need to know about Azorius Control in Standard...
... As it stands today.
First off, Azorius Control is the top deck in Standard and it doesn't seem particularly close. Why am I coming to this conclusion?
There were three Standard PTQs at MagicFest Phoenix last week; and predictably, the competition level was higher than normal given the proximity to a serious Grand Prix and, of course, Players Tour participants.
On Friday, five of the Top 8 decks were Azorius Control (with Azorius predictably winning).
On Saturday, only three of the Top 8 were Azorius Control, but it was still the most populous archetype in the Top 8.
Ditto on Sunday, with three copies again in the Top 8.
On Saturday there were two copies of Temur Reclamation (with Temur winning) and on Sunday two copies of Rakdos Sacrifice (with Rakdos similarly winning)... But no other archetype fielded a second representative! It is difficult to imagine navigating Standard today without an intimate knowledge of how to beat Azorius, or running it yourself.
For my own part, I really enjoyed watching Azorius game play, and I think if it is the top deck in the format, I like that. The games - especially the Azorius mirror - are deeply skill-intensive, with seemingly tiny decisions weighing heavily on victory outcomes many turns later. There are also wide opportunities for further innovation of Azorius... But I have to tell you, the archetype seems pretty well baked at this point, at least most of the starting sixty.
Archetype Deck List:
Azorius Control | THB Standard | Brandon Nelson, 1st Place PTQ at MF Phoenix
- Creatures (4)
- 4 Dream Trawler
- Artifacts (3)
- 3 Glass Casket
- Lands (25)
- 5 Plains
- 8 Island
- 1 Castle Ardenvale
- 3 Castle Vantress
- 4 Hallowed Fountain
- 4 Temple of Enlightenment
For sake of argument, let's work from Brandon Nelson's winning deck from the Friday PTQ. There were variations in all the - and it's crazy even typing this - eleven Azorius decks that made these Top 8s, but they have a core number of things in common.
1. It's Not About Counterspells
Nelson's deck is actually heavy on the permission main deck at a whopping five cards. It will be typical to see four Absorbs; but the one Dovin's Veto main is actually whipped cream on top. This archetype is not about permission, though Absorb the card itself is quite useful.
Though less populous than some of the other archetypes, Mono-Red Aggro looms ever-present in Standard, and Absorb's ability to gain three life is predictably valuable there. However, Absorb - or any permission spell at all - is less important in the mirror match than you might imagine.
First off, everyone plays lots of copies of Narset, and lots of copies of Teferi. That said, even though all the Azorius Control decks play creatures, they don't play the kind that are very good at pressuring 3 mana Planeswalkers.
So because the permission is often clunky (costing, as it does, the same as what it's trying to counter), and for another reason we'll get to in a second, you can often assume that the opponent will have Teferi online in the mid-game, so any permission will be less effective than you might have wanted, anyway. Also both decks have more Narsets and Teferis and big fatty boom booms than you have Absorbs. The net? You not only have to assume something meaningful will resolve, but you have to craft a game plan that will operate assuming the opponent will have access to multiple good cards per turn.
Most Azorius players only run three copies of Mystical Dispute in the sideboard for related reasons. The games tend to go very long, so Mystical Dispute doesn't even work a lot of the time even if it resolves. Or you find yourself paying retail to counter a White spell.
Permission is still permission, and you'll want to tear your hair out when the other chap has three Absorbs early... But it's not what this archetype is about at present.
2. It's Actually About Elspeth Conquers Death
Elspeth Conquers Death is the singular card that makes this archetype. The entire mid-game is about playing and maximizing this powerful new enchantment. You'll note it is perfectly positioned to destroy - sorry exile - opposing Planeswalkers; most importantly Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis in some builds.
There is simply not enough permission to keep Planeswalkers off the battlefield in a mirror. Say you have five. The opponent has eight, four of which are Narset. Narset can find more Planeswalkers (most notably more copies of Narset, which keep the ball rolling even though an opposing Teferi); or Elspeth Conquers Death. They snowball. Narset begets Narset which begets Elspeth Conquers Death which begets a SUPER Narset that fires an extra time!
Since Elspeth Conquers Death is eventually going to get back Narset or Teferi, you have to get used to operating a game of Magic where one or both players has one or both of these Planeswalkers - and their static abilities - in play for most of the game! And that isn't even considering Chapter Two clunking up your land, or sequences where multiple Elspeth Conquers Deaths mean it's Chapter Two every turn!
Narset finds Elspeth Conquers Death, but Teferi makes it sing. Have you thought about bouncing Elspeth Conquers Death? Because of the ability to both up-tick Teferi and cycle through additional copies of Teferi via Elspeth Conquers Death, it's difficult to peg just how many times you can run through the same four slips of cardboard. See how it can't be about permission? You can't counter everything, and even if you counter Teferi, he's coming back.
In matchups other than the mirror, Elspeth Conquers Death is surprisingly flexible. It can get rid of both Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Wilderness Reclamation in the Temur matchup. Against the Red Deck it is a direct answer to either Torbran, Thane of Red Fell or Experimenal Frenzy at the four... Or can nix Phoenix of Ash permanently; or Anax, Hardened in the Forge without conceding a "destroy" trigger (which in all likelihood will be for two creatures).
3. In the Mirror, You Can't Really Side Out All Your Wraths
Many builds have all four copies of Dream Trawler in the main deck! Dream Trawler can effortlessly avoid Glass Casket or fly over a Castle Ardenvale chump... But it dies to Shatter the Sky like any other creature.
There is some debate about how many copies of Shatter the Sky you can afford to cut. Depending on the opponent's build, the answer might be zero!
Think about it: What if all four of your Wraths got all four of his Dream Trawlers, cleanly 1-for-1. Is that enough? You can still lose to tokens! But more importantly, those pesky Elspeth Conquers Deaths can bring back Dream Trawlers, not just Planeswalkers. Unchecked Dream Trawlers are actually hard to beat using conventional means because not only are they resistant to most removal... They themselves are constantly drawing up additional answers!
Resource management and patience, more than anything else, are key here. Players will often be jumpy about tempo in the first few turns. The Azorius mirror is not won or lost in the first few turns. Even with one player utterly dominating the other around turn fifteen it can be difficult to accurately predict who will win. And who wins might not have been decided by whether or not a Teferi resolved on turn three. Like I said before: It's not enough about permission for that to be the be all and end all.
If there is something to prioritize, it's resolving your Elspeth Conquers Deaths. Each one is worth at least two cards, and often five or more based on who or what you're getting back.
4. Speaking of Wraths, Shatter the Sky is Particularly Great in This Build
What about now?
Shatter the Sky has a downside clause... Except when Narset can cover you!
5. Veteran Planeswalkers are Better Than Ever
I think this little two-card combination is one of the main reasons to try this deck.
Narset was always good at drawing cards... But it could sometimes be frustrating when you needed a land. The ability to get The Birth of Meletis essentially lets you Narset for a basic Plains. Which is awesome! This is the right pull a lot of the time even when there is a saucy Dovin's Veto or some similar available.
Don't forget you can combo Teferi and The Birth of Meletis, too!
6. If Game 1 is about Elspeth Conquers Death, Game 2 is Often About Tokens
Azorius Control | THB Standard | Edgar Magalhaes, 2nd Place PTQ MF Phoenix
- Artifacts (2)
- 2 Glass Casket
- Lands (25)
- 4 Plains
- 8 Island
- 2 Castle Ardenvale
- 3 Castle Vantress
- 4 Hallowed Fountain
- 4 Temple of Enlightenment
Check out Edgar's sideboard tech:
Dawn of Hope has a lot going for it. For one, presuming you resolve it, it is a much more efficient source of 1/1s than the opponent will usually have. You'll want to pulse your card draw depending on the Narset situation... But you're actually pretty good at pressuring Narset given the two-four structure of the card.
Most importantly, at two mana... This key permanent is one of the few that can't be answered by Elspeth Conquers Death.
7. Hitting Your Land Drops is of Paramount Import
Take advantage of Narset's newfound ability to get you Plains. Be aggressive with The Birth of Meletis or you might accidentally draw all your Plains before playing all your Births. Some builds have only four Plains. I suggest six.
It's usually right to want the other guy to bite first. Both mana (an Absorb versus most of the threats in the other deck) and card power (Elspeth Conquers Death versus the threats) favor the receiving player.
The first player to miss a land drop is usually going to be the first player to bite. Since you don't want to bite first... Hit your land drops! Like hit your first twelve if you can! These games are hardly ever decided quickly. Settle in. Let them be jumpy. It's not a race until it is.
8. You HAVE to Re-Think the Active Zones
At the PTQ on Sunday I saw Agonizing Remorse look deadlier going for the graveyard than the hand!
That is because recursion in the Azorius long game is implied by its central card: Elspeth Conquers Death. In this case an Orzhov player threw everything he had at Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis just to get her in a zone where he could interact.
Maybe Soul-Guide Lantern will take over C's place in the deck? Soul-Guide Lantern can neuter the effectiveness of Elspeth Conquers Death, and can still cantrip. It's got text against Cat Food decks, too!
Glass Casket is very quietly one of the All-Stars of this archetype. Obviously there to slow down anyone trying to kill you, Glass Casket takes away what's special about Anax, Phoenix of Ash, and even Uro! Escape is the key mechanic of Theros Beyond Death, and "destroy" doesn't mean what it once did.
Going beyond the mirror, you have to know where your stuff is vulnerable, too. I saw a player immediately bounce his last Elspeth Conquers Death only to lose it to a discard spell. Because so many key cards are Legendary it's essential you know what's going to die anyway, and make room for what's going to come back with the greatest impact. It's not always a card-drawing Planeswalker!
The active zones aren't hand and stack and battlefield. I'd hazard you need to think about the enormity of your library as well. If you've ever watched the Temur matchup... It sure looks lopsided. But every Absorb you blow on a Wilderness Reclamation should give you pause. They're not going to run out of Expansion // Explosions and other gaudy threats before you run out of permission. Because it takes so long for to actually win, you have to assume both players are going to see lots of their libraries. Don't get jumpy!
My rec against 'Rec? Lean on Teferi. He does good work. Play slowly and hit your drops. It's okay to take six or twelve sometimes. Elspeth Conquers Death can cure a lot of ills (Death, even). Make your counters count.
It's a lot to think about, I know. But mastering the emerging vocabulary of this new-old archetype will help you conquer, if not death, your next Standard tournament.