Azorius Basterds

My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I’m putting together a special team … Through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And [they] won’t be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And [they] will be sickened by us, and [they] will talk about us, and [they] will fear us. And when [they] close their eyes at night and they’re tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?
— Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, Inglourious Basterds

Those that know me can probably tell you that nothing is more frustrating to me than not being able to hit all my colors and cast all my spells. I am generally a fan of consistency over power. Even in a Standard format with as much fixing as is currently available, I hesitate to play a three color deck.

That said, I’m pretty sure that playing a U/W control deck in this format requires at least a splash of some kind, be it red for Pillar of Flame (as seen in week one from Todd Anderson), green for Thragtusk and Farseek (like the Bant control deck suggested by Chapin), or black for access to Ultimate Price, Lingering Souls, and Sorin (such as the deck that Shaheen Soorani piloted to win Virginia States).

Clearly there are several ways to bastardize the Azorius deck, and personally I’ve run the gamut. I think splashing for Pillar early on was correct—even necessary, considering the saturation of Zombies that was expected. However, the majority of the Zombie population has since died out (“died out again?”), and if you’re going to go with red, I think the midrange/tempo strategies are probably a better fit. The format-defining beast that is Thragtusk, plus the addition of a “Mind Stone” in Farseek was very enticing, but the need to hit green mana on turn two to get the most out of Farseek (i.e. resolve Jace, Architect of Thought on turn three) required more than just a splash of green. In addition, playing Thragtusk in a white deck just begs for the inclusion of Restoration Angel (and to a slightly lesser extent, Angel of Serenity), which also plays nicely with cards like Centaur Healer. All of a sudden, instead of an Azorius control deck splashing green, you’re playing a Selesnya creature deck splashing blue. While both Bant Control and U/W/R Midrange are strong and valid strategies, neither is really my style.

Last Thursday, I read Shaheen Soorani’s articleahem—”Pledge to Lingering Souls,” and my interest was piqued. Then on Friday, Gerry Thompson featured an Esper deck by Michael Hetrick (_ShipItHolla) in the SCG Premium Newsletter:

4 Azorius Charm
2 Think Twice
2 Ultimate Price
2 Syncopate
3 Sphinx’s Revelation
13 Instants

4 Lingering Souls
4 Terminus
8 Sorceries

4 Detention Sphere
4 Enchantments

4 Jace, Architect of Thought
3 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
2 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
9 Planeswalkers

4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Island
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Nephalia Drownyard
4 Plains
26 Lands

Both of these lists were right in my wheelhouse. Counters, removal, card draw, and the one-two planeswalker punch of Jace + Tamiyo. Initially I wasn’t completely sold on Sorin, but I resolved to give it a shot in an Esper control build. With the above two lists as reference points, I came up with the following:

Azorius Basterds

2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Creatures

4 Azorius Charm
2 Syncopate
2 Dissipate
2 Ultimate Price
2 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Sphinx’s Revelation
14 Instants

4 Lingering Souls
3 Supreme Verdict
1 Terminus
8 Sorceries

2 Detention Sphere
2 Enchantments

4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
2 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
8 Planeswalkers

3 Island
3 Plains
1 Swamp

4 Glacial Fortress
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Hallowed Fountain

2 Nephalia Drownyard
1 Vault of the Archangel
26 Lands

These lists are obviously very similar to each other; more than living in the same neighborhood, I think they share a three-bedroom apartment. I like a lot of Shaheen’s numbers, but I don’t really want to play with Runechanter’s Pike. It’s too much of a threat and not enough of an answer. I like my cards to either be able to get me out of a bad situation (spot removal, counterspells, sweepers, card draw) or ideally double as both threat and answer (Lingering Souls, planeswalkers). It’s just a one-of in Shaheen’s deck, and I certainly can’t fault him for playing it—he did win VA States, after all—but equipment is not where I want to be. I also decided to cut the Augurs, which I don’t feel are as good with so few zombies around to scare off (not to mention how demoralizing it is to whiff, even if it’s rare).

Hetrick’s list leans just a touch too heavy on the miracle plan for me, with 4 Terminus and zero maindeck Supreme Verdict. I prefer Shaheen’s split of 3 Verdict, 1 Terminus. Again, it’s a Power vs Consistency thing, with Terminus being more powerful and Verdict being more consistent. Since I’m only playing one copy of Terminus main, Forbidden Alchemy gets the nod over Think Twice. [Note: Hitting a miracle with Forbidden Alchemy does not trigger miracle, as you are not “drawing” the card, you’re putting it into your hand.]

Despite my initial reservations, Sorin has really been pulling his weight. The comparisons to Elspeth, Knight-Errant are inevitable, yet fairly warranted in the context of this deck. In most cases I find myself making a Soldier Vampire token to defend myself and my planeswalkers, and in this way Sorin is better than Elspeth (lifelink!). Sorin also threatens to go ultimate a turn faster. While his second ability is clearly weaker in the sense that it costs loyalty rather than adding it, the actual effect in concert with Lingering Souls can act as a pseudo-Overrun of sorts. If you’re not under a ton of pressure, it’s often correct to hold Sorin until you’re able to play Lingering Souls and flash it back in the same turn; then play Sorin on the subsequent turn, make an emblem, and crash in for 8.

Azorius Charm is another card that has surprised me somewhat. When the Return to Ravnica Charm cycle was initially spoiled, most put this one somewhere in the middle in terms of playability; however, just the “Condemnory Lapse” mode (as I like to call it) makes the card worth playing. That you can “cycle” it is just icing, and the third option is like remembering to grab a napkin. I always forget to grab napkins, but often find myself in situations where I wish I had one handy.

If you haven’t played a Sphinx’s Revelation yet, you’re missing out. The card is really good. I’ve mostly cast it for the lifegain and ended up with 4+ cards as a bonus. It’s like paying a lot of money for a good meal at a nice restaurant, and being given a free iPad on the way out.

I’m still fiddling around with the manabase, primarily the numbers on the utility lands. Currently I’ve got two Nephalia Drownyard, one Vault of the Archangel. I don’t want more than three in the maindeck, and I’m considering cutting one of them for either a Swamp or an Evolving Wilds. With only four counterspells main, this deck isn’t extremely vulnerable to Cavern of Souls, but a Cavern could still hurt. Ghost Quarter may be worth consideration, if only for the sideboard, with the added effect of bolstering your game against opposing Drownyards, Kessig Wolf Runs, etc.

A couple of other cards I’ve got my eye on are Drogskol Reaver and Cyclonic Rift. Shaheen does a great job espousing the virtues of Reaver in his article, so I won’t rehash that here. Rift just seems like an excellent catchall that can double as an additional sweeper—an incredibly powerful, lopsided sweeper at that. SCG’s own Glenn Jones once referred to Sleep as “the blue Bonfire,” and I think Cyclonic Rift is an even better fit for the moniker. I’m seriously considering it for a slot in the maindeck, but it’s a tough call on what to cut.

No sideboard as of right now, as I’m still tweaking the maindeck, and I’m also of the opinion that sideboarding should be tailored to each specific tournament. I will say that in the wake of Brad LeBouef’s win last weekend in New Orleans with three maindeck Cavern of Souls, the Essence Scatters that I was considering are looking a lot worse. It seems to me that you’re better off dealing with creatures using removal and sweepers than by trying to rely on narrow counterspells.

For the moment, this is my favorite deck in Standard, and it has a lot of wiggle room and potential to evolve with the format. Not only that, but Gatecrash will be sneaking up on us in just a few months, bringing with it Watery Grave, Godless Shrine, and likely a host of Dimir and Orzhov goodies that will only make the deck stronger.

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Jace, Architect of Thought – Fact or Fiction?

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Jace, so when it was announced at the MTG panel at San Diego Comic Con that there’d be a new version of Jace in Return to Ravnica, I was pretty pumped.

Over the weekend at PAX, Wizards revealed this guy:

I’ll be honest; my first impression was disappointment. A Fleeting Distraction effect without the cantrip? A weak Fact or Fiction? A better Bribery that requires a planeswalker to sit around on the table unmolested for four of my opponent’s turns?

That’s what it looked like to me at first, but then I started thinking about it a bit more.

Let’s break it down. Jace’s first ability gets better the more creatures your opponent has on board, thereby discouraging the use of cards like Lingering Souls and Moorland Haunt (both of which have been Standard all-stars since being printed). In fact, it really just discourages strategies relying on small creature swarms entirely. Creatures with 1 power are rendered completely ineffective. Immediately going up to 5 loyalty means it’s going to take a lot of small dudes (each with at least 2 power) to handle Jace if your opponent decides it’s in her best interest to try and get rid of him ASAP.

Alright, so Jace can deal with the swarms of little guys just fine. What if you’re facing down a fatty? IT’S TIME FOR SOCKS WITH SANDALS!

Sticking a Jace alongside Tamiyo, the Moon Sage will be a nightmare for creature strategies. Tamiyo locks down the big threats, and Jace makes sure the little guys are more like kids wearing Halloween masks than actual scary monsters.

Superfriends aside, Jace does not match up well against larger creatures, so you’re going to have to find another answer. Fortunately, Jace’s second ability is great at helping you dig for a solution. While it’s not exactly Fact or Fiction, it’s closer than you might think.

At the same converted mana cost, an unmolested Jace lets you see six cards (where FoF only showed you five). It also gives your opponent an additional opportunity to make a poor split. Back when the original Fact or Fiction was in Standard, there was a guy at my local shop who would cast FoF and simultaneously reach into his bag and pull out a bottle of Advil to offer to his opponents. A cheap gag, sure, but anything that gives your opponent the opportunity to make an error is a good thing. (It’s important to note that cards in the pile that isn’t chosen are put on the bottom of your library, not in your graveyard, so you’re unable to abuse Jace with Snapcaster—but then again, that’s what Forbidden Alchemy is for!)

The bottom line is, Jace’s -2 either gives you a) two cards or b) the best card in your top three—and sometimes it’s going to be c) both. A freshly cast Jace is going to give you the option of doing this twice unless your opponent decides to spend resources to get him off the table.

In my original reading of the card, I thought Jace’s ultimate said “each opponent,” not “each player.” Getting the best spell out of both my own deck and my opponent’s seems like it should be a game-ender, but like most ultimates, the win is only implied; it’s still left up to you to do the work (Note: whatever spells you decide to cast can still be countered!). I have visions of playing free Nicol Bolases, but until we know more about what the post-RTR Standard format looks like, there’s really no telling what the best targets for Jace’s ultimate could be. Being that it’s not the most likely thing in the world to happen, I’m content to sit back on his first two abilities to help buy me time and resources to win the game, rather than rely on activating his ultimate.

While the Architect of Thought is certainly no Mind Sculptor, I’ve come a long way from my initial disappointment. It’s a card I’m excited to try, and I think there’s a reasonable chance it sees play in the new Standard format post-rotation. I expect the first place I’ll put it is in a U/W Control deck alongside some cards with the new Azorius mechanic, Detain. That plus new Jace and Tamiyo seem like a recipe for an excellent late game.