This time, I am reviewing one of Magic's oldest archetypes since the game started: White-Blue Control. This article will follow the same structure as I used recently for The Red Mage's Guide to 2020. Since then, another Players Tour event happened, a Cardmarket Series too, and finally one of the most anticipated tournaments of the year, the Magic World Championship, where, as we'll discuss later, Azorius Control took the title.
For today's menu, we shall start with some Standard recap, analyzing how Theros Beyond Death made Azorius Control the best deck in the format. Then we discuss new additions to Pioneer, and finally we round things up with some Modern and Legacy recent lists and latest innovations. So, without further ado, let's get into the land of "Land, go"!
Just in case you have been living under a rock for the past month, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa won Magic World Championship XXVI in Hawaii three weeks ago, earning the biggest prize pool of all time. The event pitted the 16 best players from the previous season against each other, and basically four decks formed the top tier of this reduced metagame: Jeskai Fires, Monored Aggro, Temur Reclamation, and White-Blue Control. The winning archetype was the only one that did not play red.
Long story short, after a long weekend full of awesome Magic games shown on the popular MTG Arena client, the Brazilian Hall of Famer claimed the crown against Márcio Carvalho in an exciting final encounter.
Before dissecting PVDDR list, let's take into consideration that he was expecting a small metagame where tier two decks wouldn't make any appearance. As a consequence his take is more refined to beat the other big three archetypes; don't take this list as a reference when attending a local tournament with a wider metagame.
The main reason White-Blue Control is currently the strongest option in Standard is the amount of impactful cards printed in Theros Beyond Death, whereas during Throne of Eldraine Standard there wasn't enough critical mass to support the strategy:
First, the enchantment quartet of The Birth of Meletis, Omen of the Sea, Banishing Light and Elspeth Conquers Death. The white uncommon Saga gives you a little bit of everything, mana fixing, a reasonable blocker plus some lifegain all for 2 mana. Next, the flashy Preordain with some extra scry is superb, allowing you to keep mana open during you opponent's turn, and can be bounced with Teferi's minus ability for a ton of value. Banishing Light is a catch-all permanent reprint, and Elspeth Conquers Death is the top-end answer to recurring threats like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or the Cavalier cycle from Core Set 2020. It also brings back our walkers or Dream Trawler on its third chapter.
Then there's Thirst for Meaning — an instant draw spell to dig for key cards that works as a Thirst for Knowledge call-back while discarding disposable enchantments. Shatter the Sky is a 4-mana Wrath of God with a downside that sweeps the board when it's needed, and finally Dream Trawler works as the ultimate finisher with flying, lifelink, and protection incorporated. Overall, a total of ten cards from Theros Beyond Death support the deck, including the reprint of Field of Ruin and the singleton copy of Archon of Sun's Grace Damo da Rosa played for the aggro matchup.
This means that even when rotation comes, the deck may still be playable. I completely trust in Azorius Control as a viable choice all throughout the year. Right now, I'd recommend adding more copies of Dream Trawler to the main deck in order to finish games faster and to try out some copies of Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis as an alternate win condition.
Moving on to Pioneer, we see a whole different picture. The youngest format is still adjusting to the latest bannings plus the huge impact Theros Beyond Death had by creating new archetypes that have conquered the metagame: Dimir Inverter, Lotus Breach, and Sultai Delirium. Three cards specifically are responsible for the success of these decks, Dimir Inverter relies on Thassa's Oracle to win the game on the spot, whereas Lotus Breach portraits how powerful Underworld Breach can be combined with tons of mana production; last but not least, Sultai Delirium is all about re-casting Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath over and over again and grinding opponents out.
In a field like this, control mages have to deal with a wide range of strategies: fast aggro like Monored and Monoblack, flashy midrange ones like Bant Spirits, and two powerful combo decks in Inverter and Breach as we just mentioned. How to keep all of them at bay? Well, there are ways to fight them, as Sean Mogelgaard proved with a third place at SCG Open Indianapolis.
Thanks again to Theros Beyond Death, the deck has received new toys to play with. Actually we could differentiate between two versions, the classic one and the new enchantment-centric one, similar to the Standard shell. Starting with the draw-and-go version, it was a popular choice before Theros warped the metagame, right when Niv to Light, Chonky Red, and Monoblack Aggro were the top contenders. I am using one of the most recent list that 5-0ed to show some innovations that came up afterward.
Omen of the Sea replaces Opt: Although it shocked me at first, this is a very smart move, since turn one Opt is mana efficient but doesn't accomplish much. Omen instead, requires 1 more mana; however, it digs one card deeper, ensuring you hit land drops, synergizes with Teferi; Time Raveler, and finally allows you scry again when you are looking for answers later.
Sinister Sabotage instead of Absorb: Easy transition here, aggro decks are less dominant, hence lifegain doesn't matter as much, so Sabotage is both easier to cast and surveil smooths your draws while fueling Dig Through Time and the new Elspeth.
Gideon of the Trials pushes Narset to the sideboard: The deck needs ways to stop combo from winning and Gideon's emblem forces them to get rid of your walker first. It also can start attacking them and when facing aggro matchups, it blanks the opponent's biggest threat. Generally speaking, the card is a great choice in the current metagame and has spiked in price ever since Dimir and Lotus reached the top tier. However, if somehow those two decks disappear, maybe Gideon says goodbye as well.
Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis takes over from Elspeth, Sun's Champion: Fun fact, those two cards have very similar names so from time to time one gets mistaken for the other. Basically, a 4-mana walker that can be played repeatedly is more flexible than a 6-mana version that cannot be replayed if destroyed and/or countered. Sorry big Elspeth, such is life!
Dream Trawler is a must in the sideboard: Same here, instead of Lyra Dawnbringer, Dream Trawler is too good to pass, although it cost 1 additional mana. The fact that it can protect itself makes it an auto-inclusion in every sideboard.
Aside from these changes, a final tip for the sideboard: Mystical Dispute is everywhere these days, so don't go out without at least three in your 75. Some lists even run a main-deck copy. Also, try to play around it in almost every matchup involving blue. It's the third most popular card in Pioneer, playing a role similar to Pyroblast in Legacy when it comes to keeping blue spells in check.
The enchantment-based version showed up during Players Tour Brussels, sadly foreshadowed by all Dimir Inverter lists that dominated the field. The idea is quite nice and has great synergy between Thirst for Meaning and the thirteen enchantments it packs, especially to filter your draws and get rid of dead cards, something that the classic version can't achieve.
Overall, both variants can put up a fight in the current metagame, so my plan for the upcoming season is to play the deck as much as I can. I may share my results with and sideboard guide for the deck in near future. If you're interested, leave a comment below!
Now we get into a wilder territory in terms of raw power, starting with Modern. The dust is settling after the recent bannings; artifact-based decks have fallen out of favor since Mox Opal is gone. Three cards from Theros Beyond Death had a remarkable impact on the metagame: Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove raised Amulet Titan to top-tier status, and lately, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger started to earn a slot in Jund decks.
Focusing on or weapon of choice, Azorius Control has to deal with so many insane decks, from Monored Blitz to Dredge or Eldrazi Tron. So let's see how to adapt to the current environment with a list that recently went 5-0 in league play on Magic Online.
These shells typically rely on the best planeswalkers the format offers to gain advantage over the course of many turns. Similar to Pioneer, 3- and 5-mana Teferis are a must in any list, joined by the two best blue walkers in Narset, Parter of Veils and the almighty Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
For the first time around, the superfriends' team is completed by Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis, directly resurrected from the plane of Theros, ready to be played over and over due to her escape cost. She is super flexible, allowing you to take different roles depending on the state of the game, either to gain some life back against aggro or to create chump blockers at the beginning, then later start pressuring the opponent's life total by pumping your tokens.
Aside from that, we find the usual suspects, the most efficient yet cheap white removal in the shape of Path to Exile and Terminus, some card selection, countermagic, and something that caught my eye: some copies of Censor, a card Modern players are not used to play around, and Archmage's Charm, a modal spell that is well positioned right now as it can steal some Amulet of Vigor or early threats from aggressive decks or provide some additional draw or counter capability.
All in all, Modern Azorius Control is still viable and has a lot to offer, but it is not among the top-tier decks of the format. Be prepared to fight back from a precarious position!
Finally, a small note on Legacy, the land of Brainstorm and Force of Will. Sadly, these days, there aren't a ton of straight white-blue decks around, since Arcum's Astrolabe allows you to play three or four colors consistently with almost no drawback. Therefore, the predominant control shell is now Bant splashing red for sideboard purposes, known as Four-Color Snowko:
This almost counts as Azorius, right? Aside from Oko, Thief of Crowns and Ice-Fang Coatl, the rest of the cards are the typical control cards we know and love, only adding the usual Legacy staples in Ponder, Force of Will, and Swords to Plowshares. Although the sideboard benefits from the mana base, including Veil of Summer and Pyroblast at the same time.
This has been my review of white-blue archetypes in most competitive formats. As a general observation, all decks share the same philosophy of slowing things down on the first turns until the game goes long enough that your card advantage ends up winning the game. As you see, Teferi, Time Raveler is an all-star in every format, from Standard to Legacy and probably the face card of the strategy.
While White-Blue exists everywhere, the wider the format the harder it gets to fight against so many strategies. Since Wizards are pushing creatures and spells lately, control players have to be prepared for the most successful decks of the moment. This why you get to see cards such as Gideon of the Trials pop up in Pioneer or Archmage's Charm in Modern. And that, folks, is the beauty of control strategies. Just like Bruce Lee said, "Be water, my friend — and adapt to the metagame!"
As usual, feel free to leave your comments or questions below or hit me up on my shared Twitter account!
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