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Learning to Kill Your Darlings - How to Win a RCQ with Azorius Control


Remember how I wrote about how I barely missed a RC invite at Dreamhack Denver? It was a heartbreaking loss for sure, mitigated by the small fact I barely made my flight back to Los Angeles and received all the prizing as part of my concession. I didn't go to Denver to make money on my weekend - I came to win. The loss stung and I learned the valuable lesson of never booking your flight before 8pm on a tournament weekend.

With some tight play, important deck changes, and a little bit of luck, I secured my RC Dallas invite this past weekend, again with my take on Azorius Control.

It's vital you know how we got here and the journey it took to secure the win.

Flashback to Monday before the event: I had the option of playing either a Standard RCQ or a Limited RCQ on Saturday. I hadn't found my footing in this Limited format by any means, as it's taken me an adjustment period to really grasp Play Boosters and the abundance of rares in the format. I opted to play Standard, coming off my near miss at Denver and having confidence in Azorius Control. If I had played Sealed I ran the risk of opening a feast or famine pool, but in Standard I ran the risk of the matchup lottery. I opted for Standard, but in hindsight I think I chose that event because the store I was traveling to was directly next to a H Mart.

I won round one of my Saturday Standard event against Dimir Midrange - which is probably my worst matchup in the current meta. Slowgurk and Toxic are headaches, sure, but how do I deal with both hand disruption, countermagic, and the impending snowball that is Gix, Yawgmoth Praetor? I felt confident in my chances with a round one win, but my hopes were quickly extinguished as I faced not one, but TWO consecutive Dimir Midrange decks in a row.

I was knocked out of Top 8 contention by local player Josh Beck. Josh isn't just good at the game, but as he was prepping for MagicCon Chicago he knew his deck inside and out, and confidently crushed me in two quick games. As I took a lethal hit from Restless Reef I reluctantly peered around the neighboring tables - half of the room had to be on Boros Convoke, my best matchup! I shook my head and packed up my cards. At least I got an H Mart trip out of it. A pound of bulgogi and some soju do wonders for the soul after a defeat that humiliating.

When I got home I received a call from control player extraordinaire Adrian Sullivan. As a fellow Azorius-believer, Adrian had been following my builds of the deck I had been posting on Twitter. We got to talking and soon came to some of the same conclusions on the deck. While agreeing on a lot of the cards, Adrian also gave me some great insight into his history as a Control mage, and some potential changes to the deck.

After our two-hour conversation a few key vital changes were made to the deck, and thus my new 75 for Azorius Control was born. Our changes went as follows:

Optimization #1 - Adding the 27th Land

With an uptick in people playing various Azorius Control decks and this list never wanting to miss a land drop, I contemplated playing a 27th land, but I wasn't sure what to play. Mirrex was promising as another way to win the game, especially in the mirror - and it also synergizes nicely with Ezrim. However, Adrian suggested first Sunken Citadel, as it can be used for all my land activated abilities, but then offered the idea of playing a fifth surveil land. As the deck has so many WW cards, I chose to play a White surveil land, but Adrian made another great note - it should be something to throw people off. I would've played an Elegant Parlor had I owned one, but Lush Portico would have to do.

The 27th land also lets you keep sketchier hands, and make decisions in-game where you can bet on drawing a land, since almost half your deck is mana. I actually kept a one-lander in Game 1 of round one on the draw, that land being Lush Portico. I won that game.

Optimization #2 - Cutting Intrude on the Mind for Second Ezrim, Agency Chief

While Intrude on the Mind didn't necessarily underperform in my deck, Ezrim, Agency Chief overperformed. Ezrim is so similar to Dream Trawler, one of my favorite control finishers of all time, and it has so many nice synergies in this deck. You can sacrifice you're The Celestus if you're out of clues to give it an ability. You can flicker it with The Eternal Wanderer to make two clues every single turn. You can also put on a three-turn clock by using The Wandering Emperor's +1 ability. Overall, Ezrim felt like a card that would turn the corner faster than Intrude on the Mind, and I was very happy with it, as it won me my match against Domain and Dimir in the Top 8.

Optimization #3 - Swapping a Sunfall for Depopulate

While Sunfall is a much better wrath than Depopulate, being cheaper on mana is very relevant. I not only played against Convoke in my RCQ, but it was a huge percentage of the room! While I don't think the deck is that strong (and no copies made the top 8) I do think that Depopulate is necessary to keep pace with that deck, if you aren't slamming Temporary Lockdown on turn three. I actually added the cut Sunfall back to the deck the morning of the tournament, but let's save that story for Optimization #5.

Optimization #4 - Guardian of New Benalia over Dennick

This was an interesting swap in theory, and one that Adrian swore by. I wasn't going to just shrug off the suggestion from the Pro Tour Top 8 competitor, but I wasn't exactly sold on it either. You want me to cut my lifelinker for just a regular 2/2?? Adrian had some good points though. Guardian of New Benalia just sits in play, making it hard for your opponent's first few plays to matter. The enlist ability is relevant as well, but the main reason is just putting a huge roadblock into play. While I did board it in against Convoke and Mono-Red, I never actually drew the card and cannot give a more informed opinion. Try it out for yourself!

Final Optimization - Killing Your Darlings, Cutting Jace from the Maindeck

As the title of this article suggests, the final change to the deck was learning, and knowing when to cut Jace from the maindeck. For a bit of background, the phrase "kill your darlings" comes from writer William Faulkner, who coined the term. It refers to removing parts of your writing that while you may love, doesn't serve the purpose of your story. Flores also wrote a stellar article about it a few years back.

I had been married to including Jace in my maindeck pretty much since this deck's inception at the end of last year. I originally Constructed this deck as Dimir Control with four copies of Jace. Four was too many, so I adopted the idea of playing a game where I could get my opponent down to 30 cards in library, then set up my draw to end the game with a double Jace combo.

Early in testing this Standard format back when Lost Caverns of Ixalan came out I realized that Domain, one of the most popular decks at the time, was such an easy matchup because of this inclusion. If you could repel the tide of threats they presented long enough to survive until they had 30 cards in library, you could end the game in just one turn. Without the two Jaces, however, I didn't feel confident in being able to win Game 1 against them. There was one gleaming hole in this plan, however.

In too many matchups besides Domain, Jace was blank cardboard. Sure, it helped you draw a card or slow down your opponent's board, but it wasn't doing anything in the face of the various threats in the format. Chances are if you're casting a Jace and not using it to mill your opponent out, you might be in a bit of trouble. For example, in my match against Josh on Saturday, I drew a Jace in Game 1 that didn't accomplish anything. It wasn't preventing my opponent from accruing card advantage. Jace wasn't paying rent.

In my talk with Adrian he brought up a similar example with his inclusion of Ashiok, Nightmare Muse across the various control decks he played in the 2015 Standard era. Some weeks he'd play three copies of Ashiok, some weeks four, some weeks two, and some weeks back to three. The amount of Ashioks waxed and waned based on the everchanging meta. You had to adjust accordingly to keep up. "You might go to the event and cut Jace right before it starts if you think he's not well-positioned for the tournament," Adrian added. "Go with your gut." He could not have been more right.

I showed up early to the tournament and talked to a couple of players in the room. We exchanged information on what decks we were playing, and I eyed a couple of people fanning out their Convoke decks as they were registering. A couple of other players who I knew as aggro aficionados also showed up, and I had a gut feeling that Jace was not in the cards today. Right before the event I made the last minute swap of cutting both Jaces for the third Sunfall and first Destroy Evil, and cut the fourth Knockout Blow from the sideboard for the second Jace, as I already had one Jace in the board. I can't tell you how important that swap was.

I didn't play against Domain once during the swiss, and there were only two copies in the entire room. I did play against Domain in Top 8, but being the higher seed let me punch out an unlikely aggressive Chrome Host Seedshark/Ezrim, Agency Chief draw to win Game 1. No Jaces required. After a loss on the draw I tidied things up in Game 3 for a double-Jace kill for exacties. Score!

In the semifinals I again was met with the menace that is Josh Beck (and if you read this Josh I say that with all due respect). I knew this matchup was going to be tough. In a pivotal turn in Game 1 I Memory Deluged in my upkeep looking for an answer to the Sheoldred, the Apocalypse Josh had just resolved. Upon finding the one Destroy Evil I couldn't help but gleefully proclaim: "holy heck this is better than a Jace!"

After defeating Josh in three games I luckily received a concession in the finals, as my opponent only really cared about the physical prizes. Funny how different the finals I played exactly a week prior played out.

Here were my matchups across the entirety of the event:

  • Round 1: Azorius Flash (2-0)
  • Round 2: Boros Convoke (2-0)
  • Round 3: Mono Red (1-2)
  • Round 4: Azorius Control Mirror (1-0)
  • Round 5: ID

Quarterfinals: Domain (2-1)

Semifinals: Dimir Midrange (2-1)

Finals: Domain (opponent agreed to prize split, invite for all the other prizes)

I can't tell you how elated I felt getting the handshake in the finals. While this is by no means my first RCQ win, something about this one meant so much more to me than any RCQ win prior. I had put so much time and effort into this deck, so many hours of play-testing and theorizing that it felt so gratifying to put up a result with it. While I was proud of my top 16 achievement at the 5k at Dreamhack Denver, I left Denver (barely making my flight I may add) with a hollow feeling in my stomach.

Being able to win with my own take on an archetype, when I had started on the list back months prior made the win all the sweeter, and I got some well-earned pat on the backs and fist bumps from my friends and even my Top 8 opponents.

All in all, I love this deck. I love the design, the balance between threats, answers, and card draw, and how it plays against decks in the current metagame. All my matches had interesting decision points and I felt like my deck-building and play were rewarded. I think this deck isn't the hardest to pick up, but it's vital to understand the numbers for the card choices and what their prime applications are. For more, you can check out my sideboard guide that I posted last week.

If there's one important lesson I learned from all of this, it's not only to "kill your darlings" but it's learning how to adapt and tune based on what the metagame requires. Mike's immortal words from "How to Win a PTQ" will forever be burned into my memory: "Stay flexible. There are no permanent alliances to colors, to deck preference, to single card choices. Black might be purple, orange, or even Botswana next week. Change or die."

While I may have not taken the "deck preference" part of this statement to heart, the more important lesson is learning to be flexible. Change or die. Kill your darlings. Cut Jace from the maindeck. These are the thoughts I'll take from this weekend and I ask you to consider the same the next time you're making changes to your deck the night or morning before your tournament.

Hopefully you aren't too tired of my Azorius Control articles after this one, I promise I'll have something a little more unique next week. As always, thanks for reading!

-Roman Fusco

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