Controlling Standard — Azorius at GP Louisville (Top 32)

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:

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:

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!

 
  1. Hey, love UW Control, and this list looks awesome. How important were the 3 Ratchet Bombs main, and did you ever miss Sphinx’s Rev? My gut tells me I want a 4th Rev over the 3rd Bomb, but your guts the one that top 32′d.

    Thoughts?

  2. The bombs turned out to be very important. You don’t want 4 because they war with each other if you have to blow them on 2. Revelation just isn’t the kind of card you want 4x. It’s a late-game card, and you already have 2 Elspeth 1 Aetherling, for a total of 6 late-game cards.

    Oh, and I just won ANOTHER Hydra Challenge :) This time, I used the Harvester and Slayer Avatars, but the same 75 cards. For vanguard, I would add the 4th Ratchet Bomb and cut a Dissolve. This is because aggressive strategies are more prevalent in that format, and scrying isn’t as good when you are looting.

  3. Thanks for doing this piece. Read it with great interest since I’ve been tinkering with Azorius myself for the past couple of weeks. I’ve since tried working in some of the card choices you’ve made and I have to say I’m really happy with 4x Dissolve 4x Essence Scatter. To think that I had multiple version without the latter anywhere near the 75 is mindblowing to me now.

    The only card I’m on the fence about is Ratchet Bomb. Currently I’m trying it as a 2-of in the maindeck and it’s been decent if I have it in the opener, but misserable if drawn late. No other card in the deck (aside from maybe the lands) are bad when drawn late.

    Regarding your sideboard plans I find it’s often very nice to have access to at least a couple of Azorius Charms in pretty much every matchup due to the flexibility it provides in the various precarious situations that could arise during a match. If nothing else it’s never a dead card and does serve to make you less predictable.

    The last point I’d like to make is that Friendslayer Paladin doesn’t really do enough against the decks where you need help (Mono Red). I’d much rather have a card like Tablet of the Guilds if I just want some pure lifegain or a Precinct Captain for a resilient guy that puts a bump in their path.

  4. You could be right about ratchet bomb. It’s at its best against the RG deck and mono U, but it isn’t always useful. As my article says, they were the last cards added. It’s hard to think of a better card for that slot though. You could be right about Azorius Charms. They are terrible in control matchups and against Mistcutter Hydra, but could still be good against midrange decks. But then what would you take out instead of Charms against Mono Black or Mono Blue?

    I’ve had a lot of success with Fiendslayer. The fact that they can’t burn it to death is huge, as is the lifelink. Tablet of the Guilds doesn’t seem good to me. Precinct Captain is a good card, but wouldn’t you rather pay 1 more for it to be lifelink and untargetable by red decks?

  5. I’ve been trying a lot of things in the Ratchet Bomb slot, including maindecking 1-2 Negates, and so far that’s actually been my preference. As I said though I’m giving it a try and it does fill an unique role you don’t get from any other card really. In place of the 3rd I have a single Divination which has been very good for me. Maindecking negate is only really bad against Mono Blue and really good versus a lot o decks so I think it’s worth considering.

    Fiendslayer Paladin costing 3 is a huge downside in my opinion. On 3 I would either really wanna be able to play a tapped land and react to an opposing spell or play a Detention Sphere on a Chandra’s Phoenix. Precinct Captain is something they’re pretty much forced to deal with if you put him down turn 2, and unless they have Shock they’re going to waste a lot of momentum doing so. The only guy the have that can sort of attack into it in the early turns is Ash Zealot, and if they do we’ll be able to attack back and produce perpetual chump blockers. That being said I don’t currently have them in my sideboard but mostly because Mono Red is already reasonably easy to deal with. The biggest concern is when they have an overweight of burn spells to creatures and you get stuck with a bunch of useless creature removal in hand.

    Tablet of the Guilds is a bad card when you look at it. On the other hand though it adds “+ Gain 1.5 life” to all your spells which will help a lot incrementally crawling out of Skullcrack range.

    But as I said, if Mono Red were a bigger thing online I would definitely go for the Captain. As it is now I’m just packing a pair of Jace MAs for the slow matches and matches where you need a quick wincondition because you can’t interact with theirs (e.g. Maze’s End which occasionally pops up).

  6. Thank you for the great article. What makes this article great is that all information in it is so exceptionally valid. To elaborate, I took your list to a small cash tournament without playing a single game with the deck beforehand. Split in the finals and cashed out. Deck is amazing. Esper is truly an underdog. Monoblack is favourable, almost easy, Monoblue is easy, Mutavolts are amazing and I think it is a big mistake not to play all four as a lot of lists I’ve seen do, Essence Scatter I will never leave home without in my life, in effect, everything you said came true.

    Changes I made:
    Maindeck:
    -1 Rachet Bomb
    -3 Island
    +1 Synocpate
    +3 Steam Vents

    Sideboard:
    -3 Fiendslayare Palladin
    +1 Rachet Bomb
    +2 Wear//Tear

    One loss in the tournament I took from GR Planeswalkers – Rampager and then proceeded to split in the finals with the same deck, and this is the deck I didn’t like the matchup against more on that in the minute.

    One draw from the tournament came against Maze End. Amazingly so, since after losing handily game one I managed to play turn one Mutavolt second game that started attacking on the second turn and put him down to zero turn before I would lose. Geme 3 went into time and ended a draw.

    Wins included 2 Esper, 1 MonoB, 1 MonoU, 1 Boros, all straight 2-0 victories.

    Ideas behind the changes: One Ratchet Bomb moved to the side as it seemed 2 might be enough – since the Hydra problem comes from the sideboard, the red splash is a questionable idea for the Tear part, to be able to catch a troublesome artifact sometimes (Pithing Needle or a weapon) while at the same time having 2 additional answers to Underworld Connections, and having the ability to destroy Detention Spheres in control matchups that might snag up a win condition. Never drew the card nor used it so I can’t say anything about the validity of that idea.

    GR Planeswalkers – Rampager problem:
    Turn 2 Domri, Turn 3 Xanagos, that’s the problem. While later, four pro white haste dragons to close the deal if you manage to get out of the first problem.

    Maze End problem: You need a Needle or its almost an auto-loss.

    Changes I would make in the future: In the main +1 Needle +2 Celestial Flare instead of the Bombs, move them to sideboard, 2 of them and add 1 Needle to the side.

    Ratchet Bomb is great against Hydras, but can’t answer the dragon. Celestial Flare answers both, if you manage to wrath the board beforehand and that is usual since those are both usually post wrath plays. I don’t like it and it would necessitate more white sources in the deck but I think it might be a necessary evil.

    Thanx for the great deck!

  7. you talk about not wanting needles bc of main deck ratchet bombs. in the matches that you want needles you are never going to pop ratchet bomb on one. vs rg devotion (the heaviest walker list in standard) you just needle Garruk and detention sphere should be able to handle Domri for the most part. yes, negate is awesome, but you can easily shave a gainsay and a negate for 2 needles. this is coming from someone who hates Pithing Needle as a board card a lot. i just feel it’s a necessary evil vs the rg mu which can get tough. one Garruk activation is too many.

  8. In the RG matchup you worry about Mistcutter Hydra, especially postboard. Ratchet bomb on 1 is one of your answers to Mistcutter. However, you don’t want to do this if you have a Needle out.

  9. how do you feel about omenspeakers? I run a UW control that did pretty well at FMN (3-2 lost to BR aggro both times due to slaughter games and thoughseize)

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