Taking Control of Pioneer with Azorius
- Filip Skórnicki
Ever since Pioneer's inception last October, White-Blue Control has been a mainstay of the format. Though various flavors have been in vogue during that time. Let's take a closer look at what the archetype used to look like and what its position might be following the recent bannings.
White-Blue Control established itself as a real contender essentially from day one of Pioneer, but the favored shell varied. There have been decks centered on planeswalkers, more draw-go variants, cycling, Yorion, and the version which I championed for the longest time — White-Blue Thirst. All of them had their place in the metagame at different points and have their own pros and cons. In this article, I would like to take a look at previous builds, compare them with the current builds, express my opinion on some individual card choices, and what the archetype's position might be going forward.
|Thirst Control, Grand Prix Brussels|
This is the list that I played and made Day 2 with at GP Brussels. I'd always been a huge fan of Thirst for Meaning but not so much as a source of card advantage than a Brainstorm of sorts. It provides unbelievable velocity and allows you to either pitch the dead enchantment removal in the mirror or go through your deck faster to find the sweeper against aggressive decks. Chaining Thirsts, compared to chaining say Glimmer of Genius, is not that powerful, though of course it depends on the texture of the hand. What I want to say here is that if I have other things to do like scry with Castle Vantress or pop Omen of the Sea, I'll probably hold Thirst until I want to fire it off and dig as deep as possible — again, like Brainstorm. Additionally, it is not board-dependent like Narset.
Thirst also allows you to keep some sketchy cards post-board as you can always ditch them as needed — for example Verdict in the mirror or Seal Away against a blue-red control deck because they might play Niv-Mizzet, Parun. While some people may say that Thirst is a build-around and requires deck concessions, I tend to disagree: the whole shell consists of good white and blue cards with the exception of removal that's entirely enchantment based and very powerful.
However, Thirst builds were not the only ones which I was interested in …
|Planeswalker Control, Pioneer Challenge #12066159 (6-2)|
The core here is very similar to the Thirst one. Notable differences are a bigger focus on planeswalkers, plus playing Absorb and Azorius Charm. I was testing out different approaches with cards having similar functions, and it became clear that there are a number of viable white and blue cards to consider. You can basically pick and choose what you want to play in a given environment. The same goes for the sideboard — a plethora of options that can be tailored to the specific metagames or player preferences.
And then a few sets and bannings later …
|Pioneer Challenge #12192347 (7-2) by lsv|
As we can see, the deck has barely changed. The deck still operates using the same tool box with minor exceptions in the form of newer cards, namely Shark Typhoon or Neutralize. Let's take a look at the most interesting new addition — the Typhoon. Its power lies in being so flexible. It can be an early chump blocker that draws a card or an unbeatable finisher in the late game. It can both help to control the board and win the game, which makes it so that our threat density is higher, but we are no less interactive. I probably don't need to tell you how satisfying it is to cast a Dig Through Time with the Typhoon on the battlefield. (Yes, you get an 8/8 Shark.)
Four two-mana counterspells, a handful of three-mana ones, a bunch of walkers, and a full set of Verdicts seem like a good enough recipe in general. The problem with playing control early in a format cycle is that one really does not know how to adjust and construct the deck to be ready for the metagame. Should I play more Vetos and Disputes or maybe more two-mana removal and sweepers? There will be no answer as long as the meta hasn't settled, and it's only settling right now. The bigger problem is that the bans have shaken up Pioneer massively and already another set looms on the horizon, which means it will be tough to find definitive answers. So next let's look at some likely candidates …
Popular Azorius Cards
Because the cards overlap so much between the builds, I would like to touch on some specific inclusions and present my position. The question asked the most is which Cancel to play. Popular options seem to be Neutralize, Absorb, Sinister Sabotage, Void Shatter, and sometimes Render Silent. As far as I'm concerned, all of them have some pros and cons and I would like to briefly list them.
Neutralize – lower ceiling than the rest of the cards, actively average if you plan to cast it, but great at being cashed in for another card. I think it would shine in a meta when you don't know upfront whether you will want countermagic or not.
Absorb – I believe it's among the worst of the bunch. The super prohibitive mana cost means that its upside really has to offset that cost, and it does not even come close. In theory, it is great against aggro decks as it helps stabilize with the lifegain stapled on. I think such a conclusion, however convincing at face value, is invalid. You barely get to cast it against decks with a plethora of one- and two-drops; on the draw there is literally no time to play a three-mana counterspell. Therefore, I do not think it is "the best in aggro metagames," as some people claim. Post-board you wouldn't even have it in your deck and preboard it's barely serviceable on the play and abysmally bad on the draw.
Sinister Sabotage – my favorite. It provides additional value when you cast it. Not only does it provide card selection, but by doing so you also fuel Dig Through Time.
Void Shatter – a very tempting option when there are a lot of Mystical Disputes floating around. The exile clause is not irrelevant either but good against Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger.
Render Silent – I have never been convinced. Against low-to-the ground decks it could be a "gotcha" effect, but as we have already established you don't want to choose your cancel thinking about aggro decks. Against other control decks during stack fights, your opponent will still respond to the Render with another counterspell. It only really accomplishes what you want if your opponent does not have countermagic but has a lot of threats and one Render resolving means they won't cast another threat. It's an upside, but I don't think it is worth the cost.
All in all, I personally would either play Sinister Sabotage or actual zero cancels and run some kind of mix between Dovin's Veto and Essence Scatter or Horribly Awry. They are cheaper, which is super relevant, and have powerful narrow effects.
Another popular discussion is Opt versus Omen of the Sea. Omen has a much much higher ceiling as it digs three deep and then gives you scry 2. However, Omen is twice as expensive as Opt. What's the verdict then? I think that having a one-mana cantrip is not as relevant as it is in faster formats, and Omen gives you very powerful selection in one card. It enables the play pattern of "turn two Omen, turn three pop Omen, turn four Supreme Verdict" because it gets you so far into the deck that you are quite likely to have the sweeper by turn four. Outside of the early game, where I don't think Opt is that crucial, Omen is a much much better topdeck. In a desperate situation, you can play it, respond to its trigger by sacrificing it, scry 2, then scry 2, and then draw to hit whatever you're looking for. Opt is mentioned often as a key card to fuel Dig Through Time. Here I'd like to say that White-Blue Control plays Dig, but it's not a Dig deck. I think actively choosing cards just because they act as delve fodder is probably a bad decision. The proper way to fuel Dig is to use effects which hold their own and additionally help with filling up the graveyard — Fabled Passage, Thirst, Sinister Sabotage.
Now a bit on the lands. There are two cards which are often subject of debate: Castle Ardenvale and Field of Ruin. In short, I think they are both bad to average. In order to play the Field, supposing you don't run Absorb and Azorius Charm already — in which case please be careful with the colorless lands — you need to make sure there are a lot of lands you want to destroy. Thinking that Field is "worst case a slow fetch" is a huge understatement of how slow this fetch is. It's best in Mutavault metagames with some Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and castles around. And on the topic of castles, the white one is really really bad if you want to use it for anything other than closing a game. The reason it's played is because it is almost a free win condition built into the deck. You almost never want to use it for defense and very rarely will you want to use it instead of Castle Vantress or cards in your hand. I'd play as few as possible. Naturally, it is pretty good in the mirror, but there are a lot of matchups in Pioneer that are not control mirrors.
Finally, a few words about three last cards. Elspeth Conquers Death is a card that I have never liked and probably never will in Pioneer. It is defensible in the Thirst version, but you would mostly ditch it anyway. I see it as five-mana sorcery conditional removal and after two turns you hopefully get a walker back. I'd rather play another Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Narset, Parter of Veils used to be fine, but now I see it as a card advantage engine which does not affect the board state, costs three mana, and comes at sorcery speed. It is expensive and clunky against creature decks, and a blue main-phase spell against control decks.
To change the mood, I will present you with my absolute favorite sideboard card for White-Blue Control — Monastery Mentor. It is not Veto-able, Dispute-able, Negate-able, grows your board exponentially and both controls the battlefield and allows you to quickly turn the corner. I will probably play three in my sideboard in most metagames. I know a lot of people like playing Opt when running Mentor, but I do not think such is necessary. You will play Mentor on turn three and then for example double two-drop on turn four. Opt is an option but not the one I would advise.
With all that in mind, if I were to play a tournament tomorrow, I'd register the following:
I think the fate of Azorius lies in whether Supreme Verdict is playable or not and the degree to which it's playable. As long as Verdict is good, White-Blue Control will be good. The exact numbers in each list will differ as the Pioneer metagame tends to shift dynamically between a number of decks — Lotus, Green Devotion, Niv-Mizzet Reborn, Reclamation, Burn, et cetera. Additionally, what I've described here are my arguments mixed with my preferences, but I know people favor different approaches and have different perspectives. If you are an adamant white-blue mage like myself, you will most likely have your own ideas about the deck and keep innovating and readjusting. Feel free to share your insight below!
As always, thanks for spending the time with me here today. Until next time — hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.