Grand Prix Louisville is in the books! It was held on October 19th-20th, and gives an excellent view into the evolution of standard. Pro Tour Theros happened the previous weekend, and offered quite the array of interesting deck choices. The Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros was dominated by Mono-Blue Devotion with the finals decks being nearly identical versions of that archetype. Also represented were Orzhov Midrange, Mono-Red Devotion, Mono-Black Devotion, Esper Control, and Makahito Mahara’s combo-ish Colossal Gruul Brew.
Just after the Pro Tour ended, I began prepping for GP Louisville. I spent about four days testing different decks online, mainly in 2-mans or in casual games with friends. Clearly there were a variety of good decks available, so the task was to determine which deck would be best against the expected metagame. Given the success of Blue Devotion at the Pro Tour, and the instant popularity of the deck online, it was clear that Louisville would be inundated with many copies of Master of Waves. Moreover, the most fun deck in the Top 8 was Colossal Gruul, and it had also spread like wildfire. The other decks all existed, but none were as common.
I tested a few decks just to see how they felt. First, I toyed around with Dimir Mill. After all, that deck gets several control elements and two milling planeswalkers, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and Jace, Memory Adept. I also tried Boros Heroic, Orzhov Midrange, and Esper Control. The Mill deck did terribly, as did the Heroic deck. Orzhov Midrange and Esper are both solid decks, but for some reason I just did not feel comfortable playing them. What I came away with from this testing was the conclusion that Supreme Verdict was extremely strong against both Blue Devotion and Colossal Gruul, as both of these decks rely on developing a critical mass of creatures to achieve their greatest power level. However, the fact that Esper runs 8 come-into-play-tapped lands and twelve shocklands felt abysmal, especially with Burning Earth’s presence in the format. I wanted to play Verdict, but with a friendlier manabase.
This led me to exploring Azorius Control, which was a player online before Pro Tour Theros, but which had fallen to the wayside as Esper became more dominant. Azorius doesn’t have quite as many tools as Esper, but it does have friendlier mana and can play Mutavault. After about a day of testing Azorius, I believed I was on the right track. I was winning most of my matches, and still felt there were improvements to be found. At this point, I was sold on 57 maindeck cards:
Azorius in Standard (57 Cards)
Some of these cards are no-brainers, and most of them have a place in Esper. The win-condition package of 2 Elspeth and 1 AEtherling has become commonplace, in part because AEtherling is best thought of as a 7-drop (most of the time), and you want your curve to taper off toward the high end. 4 Revelation is too much because you don’t want copies to get stuck in your hand early. You can’t have too many Detention Spheres because no card in Standard destroys all enchantments. The only card that can destroy multiple Detention Spheres is Ratchet Bomb, which is not commonly played. Moreover, Sphere is necessary in Azorius because it lacks cards like Doom Blade and Hero’s Downfall.
One powerful aspect of the deck is that it runs a full 8 counters, which have improved since Cavern of Souls left the format. I decided to run 4 Dissolve because of the Mutavaults. With 4 Mutavaults, Azorius wants 27 lands. Because Azorius did not get a scry land in Theros, however, it needed some way to help control its draws. The scry on Dissolve is very good at helping the deck dig to its most important cards. Perhaps more important, however, is the power of Essence Scatter in this format. Scatter stops so many threats right now, including all the gods, and can be a great source of tempo. It can counter a Thassa on Turn 2, or can counter a creature just after playing a Detention Sphere on Turn 5. It is quite common for this deck to play Turn 3 Dissolve, Turn 4 Jace, Turn 5 Sphere, Scatter.
At just 57 cards, though, the deck needed something else; three slots were still empty. I scoured the available cards, and came up with the following possibilities: Celestial Flare, Fiendslayer Paladin, Gainsay, Last Breath, Negate, Pithing Needle, Ratchet Bomb, and Soldier of the Pantheon. Some of these were clearly sideboard cards, if anything: Fiendslayer Paladin and Gainsay, for example, are only good against specific colors. Celestial Flare seemed awkward to cast in a deck that wants to play Dissolve, and also I just don’t think Flare is very good because you often cannot hit the creature you really need to get rid of. Last Breath is good in the right matchups, but it is terrible against several decks. It is really just a sideboard card against aggro. Negate is also specialized, as it is much better against control than aggro. Pithing Needle seemed like a possibility, but it is more effective after you know what card to name. Ratchet Bomb was possible, but would war with Detention Sphere. Soldier of the Pantheon doesn’t play well with Supreme Verdict and goes against the deck’s long-game strategy.
Mulling over these options, I decided that Ratchet Bomb was the best. Bomb helps protect against early aggro and can take out problematic permanents like Whip of Erebos. It can also kill Master of Waves tokens in a pinch, and can kill Mistcutter Hydra on just 1 counter. The ability to kill Mistcutter is particularly important in a field where Blue Devotion would have a target on its back, because Mistcutter is almost as deadly to Azorius as to Blue Devotion. And against Colossal Gruul, which relies on its 2-drops, Bomb has the added benefit of being able to wipe all Burning-Tree Emissarys, Sylvan Caryatids, and Voyaging Satyrs, so in that matchup you can leave Bomb on 1 against Mistcutter, while still threatening all the 2-drops they might play. Aside from the Bomb itself, Azorius plays no 1CC or 2CC permanents, which is where Bomb is most effective, so the fact that the Azorius pilot most likely wouldn’t be able to blow Bomb for 3 without destroying Detention Sphere wasn’t fatal to its spot in the deck. However, just as too many cooks spoil the broth, too many Bombs spoil the Brew: you don’t want to play too many Bombs because then you get stuck with them in hand to avoid blowing up your other Bombs when you have to blow Bomb on 2 counters. Thus, three seemed like the right number, a fortuitous coincidence.
One consequence of playing Bomb was that Pithing Needle did not deserve a place in the sideboard. Needle is only a mediocre answer to some important cards anyway, such as Underworld Connections and planeswalkers, because your opponents gain advantage off of these cards before you are able to stop them with needle (unless you guess a walker blindly, in which case they might have a different walker than you guessed). Also, one of the matchups where Needle would be useful is in the Colossal Gruul matchup: Needle can stop their three walkers, but you often want to blow Bomb on 1 to stop Mistcutter, so Needle is a poor fit.
Ultimately I decided on the following sideboard: 4 Gainsay, 4 Last Breath, 4 Negate, 3 Fiendslayer Paladin. Gainsay is the best card against Blue Devotion, and it was expected to be a popular deck, so 4 seemed right. Last Breath is the best card against aggro, and is particularly good against Mutavault or Chandra’s Phoenix. It also is great against Blue Devotion, as it takes out Nightveil Specter and Master of Waves. Negate is the best card against control decks, and is the best way to stop both Underworld Connections and planeswalkers, as it does not allow the opponent to gain advantage off of those cards before you remove them. And Fiendslayer Paladin is just a great card against Mono-Red Aggro, which can sometimes burn you out. Getting Fiendslayer active can really swing a game. Thus, the list I took to the GP is as follows:
Standard Azorius Control, GP Louisville
This list had performed well online, so I felt prepared for the GP. I went early on Friday to grind for byes because, having played almost exclusively online this year, I had zero. I decided to buy a $50 all-you-can-grind pass on the off chance I busted out several times. Fortunately, however, the first grinder went extremely well and I earned the byes right off the bat. I defeated, in order, Naya Aggro, Red Devotion, UWR control, and UWR control again. I went 8-0 in games and, in the finals, was paired against 2010 Player of the Year Brad Nelson, who was playing just for the prizes. Having 3 byes already, Brad was kind enough to concede to me. I joined another grinder and won Round 1 2-0, but then lost a mirror match to bust out of Round 2. The deck seemed to be performing better than expected, and I could only hope that it would continue over the course of the GP.
When GP time came on Saturday morning, I felt ready. My sideboard plans were in place:
• Against Blue Devotion, +4 Gainsay +4 Last Breath, -4 Azorius Charm -4 Dissolve;
• Against Colossal Gruul, +4 Negate, -4 Azorius Charm; against Black Devotion, +4 Negate, -4 Azorius Charm;
• Against Red Aggro, +4 Last Breath +3 Fiendslayer Paladin, -4 Dissolve -2 Jace -1 Elspeth;
• Against Esper, +4 Gainsay +4 negate, -4 Azorius Charm -4 Supreme Verdict.
Against the other decks, I would improvise. I was particularly happy with the Esper matchup. Typically, people think of Esper as having an edge over Azorius because of hand disruption. However, I found that a plan comprised of 16 pieces of countermagic and eventually winning with Mutavaults (if not Elspeth or AEtherling) was very effective. Esper can almost never resolve a threat due to the massive number of counterspells Azorius is packing, and Mutavaults provide a huge advantage in the late-game. As soon as I discovered that Esper was out in droves, I began feeling great about my chances.
Day 1 did not go perfectly, as I took a quick 0-2 loss in Round 3 to Green-Red Aggro with Ghor-Clan Rampager and planeswalkers. One of those games involved Destructive Revelry on Detention Sphere. This allowed my opponent to get back Garruk, which promptly drew him 4 cards, including Polukranos, World Eater and Mistcutter Hydra. After winning against the same deck 2-0 in Round 4, I took a second loss in Round 5, this time to Red Devotion 1-2. He had monster hands and our games were very close, but he won. At this point, I was feeling dejected, and thinking that maybe I had made a bad deck choice. After all, I was only sitting at 3-2 after starting with two byes.
But then the magic happened. Round 6 I defeated Esper 2-0. Round 7 I defeated Black Devotion 2-1. Round 8 I defeated Blue Devotion 2-1. Round 9 I defeated Red Aggro 2-0. Woot! I had done it! Day 2 was on the horizon. Admittedly I would have a hard row to hoe with just a 7-2 record, but at least I had a chance. The deck seemed to be working and I felt good about it.
After getting some food and sleep, I returned to the hall to find I was in a Round 10 Feature Match against Orzhov Midrange. My opponent didn’t do a whole lot and I won 2-0. In Round 11 I played against Colossal Gruul, which I was very prepared for, and again won 2-0. In Round 12 I faced a second Black Devotion deck, this time defeating it 2-0. At this point, I was riding high on a record of 10-2. I had just won 7 straight matches, dropping only 2 games during that time. In fact, I had only lost 6 games the entire tournament so far.
With 3 rounds to go, I would need to win out to make Top 8. Unfortunately, my Top 8 hopes died in Round 13, where I lost 0-2 to Blue Devotion. I felt confident about this matchup, but my opponent both drew and played well. He managed to stick Thassa both games, and I didn’t have the Detention Sphere to get rid of her. That gave him the card selection and unblockability he needed to eventually take each game. I fought valiantly, but ultimately could not have won either of those games, even though I like that matchup in general.
I then won a tense Round 14 against Boros aggro 2-1, with Jace proving invaluable. Jace’s +1 ability (-1/-0 to all attackers) was crucial, as my opponent had out Spear of Heliod both games, and reducing the power of his attackers allowed my sideboarded Last Breaths to be effective. This was especially important for removing his 2/3 attacking Mutavaults. As long as I survived, Sphinx’s Revelation, Elspeth, and AEtherling eventually took over. This is a difficult matchup due to Boros Charm, and I feel lucky to have escaped with a win, especially after my opponent had won the die roll and crushed me game 1.
Thus, I went into Round 15 at 11-3, in 32nd place. Assessing the standings, I noticed that there were exactly 26 players at 33 points, and that these players stretched down to 38th place. There were no players at 31 or 32 points, so if we drew nobody below 38th place could catch us. 26 players at 33 points meant that there were 13 11-3 pairings, including us. Thus, if we drew, we would only need 6 of the remaining twelve 11-3 pairs to play out their matches in order for us to be a lock for top 32. And since most people tend to play, we decided to take that risk. Even if most people took a draw, we would still have a decent shot to make it on breakers. As it turned out, we were the only pair of those 13 savvy enough to draw, and we thus finished in 24th and 25th place for $400 each. The Red Devotion and Blue Devotion players I had lost to each finished in the Top 64 (although they would also have finished in the Top 32 if they had drawn in the last round).
Although this was not a Top 8, I consider this to be a major success. To date, I have played 10 GPs. 7 of these were limited and 3 of them constructed. I made Day 2 in 5 of the limited GPs, but until Louisville, I had failed to make Day 2 in constructed. Third time was a charm, and I made it count by turning it into a $$ finish. This means that, in my first 10 GPs, I have made Day 2 6 times. I scrubbed two of those at 11-5 and 12-4, but cashed 4 of them by placing 25th, 23rd, 22nd, and 3rd. This puts my average GP winnings at $280, not counting expenses. Although this isn’t enough to motivate me to fly for GPs, I do still plan to attend GPs within a reasonable driving distance, especially now that they scale prizes.
One reason for my success in Louisville is that the deck’s mana is so consistent: Azorius rarely mulligans. Over the course of the Grand Prix, I only mulled once! The same was true in the grinders. This weekend, my Azorius deck only mulliganned twice in 18 matches, which helps explain why it only lost 11 games in the GP and grinders combined. Maybe I just got lucky and drew better than my opponents, but I had a good feeling about the deck after winning 10 straight matches online, including winning an 8-man and 4-0’ing a daily. I’m not 100% sure that Azorius is the best deck in the format, and it certainly takes some getting used to, but it is fun to play and I definitely think it’s a contender. Good luck if you decide to sleeve it up!
A final note: I also managed to 10-0 with this deck in the Hydra Challenge, using the +1 Protector and +1 Harvester avatars. Azorius HYDRA WARRIOR, ROAR!