A History of Azorius Control
Anthony Dolce goes deep into the history of Azorius Control in Pioneer and how it has evolved.
No matter what format of Magic you play, there are certain decks that serve as boogeymen, as the name of the decks themselves can invoke heavy emotions from seasoned players. “Red Deck Wins” is either a rallying cry for the legion of players who like to spend the least amount of time playing the game as possible, or it draws groans and ire as players on the other side of the table try to live past turn four.
“Jund Midrange” or “Jund’em out!” is another such rallying cry, this time by the fairest, most dedicated players, aiming to play Magic the way they feel Richard Garfield intended: Through attrition and resource management. The latter phrase here is also used as a point of mockery, as fans of this deck are often told to move on from the past and join Magic in 2022, a world polluted with FIRE Design and “draw a card” attached to everything.
But the deck name that draws the most universal disdain is UW or Azorius Control. Unlike the others I mentioned, there is no need for a nickname or a chant. Simply the color pair and archetype of the deck said sequentially are enough to draw very specific reactions from the archetype’s most staunch of haters.
Azorius Control made for a logical starting point at the inception of Pioneer, because of two cards with the same character on them. Both Teferi, Time Raveler and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria are among the best Planeswalkers in the history of Magic and they play very well together in decks, as they both can stall for time, draw cards, and make the person across the table from them incredibly salty.
So it isn’t surprising that people, like ovmlcabrera in the first ever Pioneer challenge, decided to take two of the absolute strongest cards printed in recent memory and jam them into the same deck. What is surprising, however, is how absolutely startlingly different this first list looks compared to now. While Humans decks have kept a lot of the same cards from the start of Pioneer, a deck like this is almost unrecognizable.
From the above list, here are the cards you’ll see in UW Control decks of today, excluding the land base, which hasn’t changed that much: Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Opt, Absorb, Dovin’s Veto, Supreme Verdict, Rest in Peace in the side board… And that is it. You’ll still get your occasional Narset, Parter of Veils in some lists but it’s not in all of them, and the rest of the deck has completely changed. It’s funny to look back on these lists and see Azorius Charmin there, as the two mana interaction in these colors was so limited that Azorius Charmwas really among the best options.
So how did we get from a list of Syncopates, Azorius Charms, and Nyx-Fleece Rams to where we are now? Well there were a few cards along the way that have defined the archetype, and a lot of them came with Pioneer’s very first new set release, Theros: Beyond Death. Several of them show up in this league 5-0 list from MaxCapone.
There are a lot of new faces here, though not many of them will actually stand the test of time. Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis as a one of in the 60 with another in the 75 makes me very happy, as I think she’s one of the more unique planeswalkers ever printed, and I always felt like she would be decent in UW Control. Unfortunately, she would be greatly, greatly outclassed by another white planeswalker that we’ll get to later.
We also get a couple new sagas like Birth of Meletis and Elspeth Conquers Death. Birth of Meletis makes sense as a “Build your own Wall of Omens” kind of card, while ECD provided removal and inevitability.
While Soul-Guide Lantern also shows up here as graveyard hate, the card to really talk about is Dream Trawler as it’s the one that’s still prevalent today. There are some decks that either figuratively or literally can’t deal with Dream Trawler. It’s one of the strongest tools that UW Control has to fight other creature decks and decks like modern day Rakdos Midrange. It gains life, it flies, it draws cards, combining for the full package control looks for in a finisher. While it doesn’t have flash and it can be countered itself, it’s not really meant for control mirrors.
Another card we’ll talk more about later is Omen of the Sea, AKA Sea-ordain. In the very next set, we’ll get a card that incentivizes people to play permanents with ETB abilities.
Oh Companion, My Companion
Everything changed when Ikoria attacked, as with it, came the companion mechanic and importantly for this, Yorion, Sky Nomad. For the low cost of 20 extra cards in your deck and a sideboard slot, Yorion gave control decks a guaranteed threat for free that also could provide a ton of incremental advantage.
Need to reset Planeswalker loyalty? Yorion has you covered.
Want to restart a saga? Yorion is on the case.
How about an extra two scries and an extra card to draw, like from Omen of the Sea? No problem there either.
Yorion is still a mainstay of control decks today, although there are many people who play the more streamlined 60 card variants, myself included. No matter, for those people like me, there is Kaheera, the Orphanguard, as playing no creatures in your deck is a very simple way of hitting her restriction. If you sideboard in Dream Trawler or another kind of creature Kaheera doesn’t allow, you will lose access to Kaheera, but even still, it’s yet another free card to play.
But how does control win with zero creatures in the deck, other than Planeswalkers? Well fortunately for us, Ikoria released another Blue-based control deck mainstay in Shark Typhoon. Shark Typhoon was viewed as a memey six mana enchantment but the hidden ability of Shark Typhoon is that the ability to hardcast it is flavor text 90 percent of the time. What actually matters is the X/X uncounterable flash flier that draws a card. Sure, you can get late enough in a game where hardcasting it is correct, but the card’s real value lies in the fact that it’s good on turn three and turn 10.
Hilariously, there was a third companion that people tried out that I found, in the first Challenge held after Ikoria’s release on May 16, 2020. MTGO user god_campbell tried Zirda, the Dawnwaker, and yeah, as it turns out, all of the permanents in the deck do have activated abilities. Fair enough. The best thing Zirda does here is reduce Shark Typhoon’s cycling cost by two, but it does reduce the activation cost of both Castle Ardenvale and Vantress.
A week later, in the May 23, 2020 Challenge, sixth and seventh place were both Yorion Control decks, going all in on Yorion’s ability to blink permanents, as shown in the sixth place list from blusideoflife.
Also we’re around six months into the format and we’re still on Azorius Charmand Fumigate. How far we’ve come since.
Cycling through cards
With the release of M21 on July 3, 2020, Azorius Control was really starting to hit its stride. In the midst of a meta consisting of cheating Agent of Treachery into play, cheating a ton of green mana with Nykthos, and cheating humans into play with Winota, Joiner of Forces, UW Control was out here doing its best to stop all that nonsense. We have traditional lists like ones we’ve already seen above, but there is a new card I want to discuss in Teferi, Master of Time.
I’ll admit, I was one of the people who thought Te-four-i was going to break formats open and was going to be Jace, the Mind Sculptor and all these other things. As it happens, that was incorrect. But people did play it for a bit, and he did find his way into a lot of Azorius Control decks, sandwiched between his UW namesakes that actually did define many formats. But the most interesting take on UW Control that I found scrolling through Challenges is this 29th place finish in the July 18, 2020 Challenge, piloted by awesomemaxi1.
This is a masterpiece. Hang it in the Louvre. Going all in on cycling cards and Drake Haven with the control backup plan is hilarious and I respect it a lot. For as streamlined as decks can be, this is an interesting take, and while it was piloted to a 3-3 record in the challenge, I want to give this list the respect it deserves.
With standard rotation coming in the fall of 2020 thanks to the release of Zendikar Rising, Pioneer UW Control had a couple new contenders in the form of the MDFCs, such as Jwari Disruption, Emeria’s Call, and Seagate Restoration, though a lot of traditional UW Control decks were phased out at the moment, thanks to Uro still being legal in the format. Because of that, most decks that would have been UW Control at the time were instead splashing green because of how good Uro was, or splashing Black to play a bunch of cards to combat how good Uro was, such as Shadow’s Verdict and hand hate, which was a necessary measure against many of the decks legal at this time.
The other thing is that, during this time, Teferi, Time Raveler was still legal, and while on paper that sounds like it would be great for UW Control, looking back, I think it did more harm. Teferi was being played in a lot of inherently unfair decks like 5C Niv Mizzet or Transmogrify Treachery that neutered the thing UW was best at in being able to counter spells. The legality of these two cards specifically remained in tact through all of Zendikar Rising, and was rectified less than two weeks into Kaldheim’s release, with one of the most impactful ban announcements in Pioneer’s history on February 15, 2021. Wilderness Reclamation, Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informant joined Teferi and Uro on the Pioneer ban list, which, along with a few Kaldheim cards, resuscitated UW Control as an archetype.
Our very own KarnageKardsENT piloted this list to 16th place with a 4-2 in the April 4, 2021 Challenge, and you see some new faces here. Saw It Coming gave deck builders a very tantalizing option in a potential two mana hard counter, on top of a two mana scry two draw two in Behold the Multiverse , a potential three mana sweeper in Doomskar. Combine that with Hengegate Pathway to help smooth out the mana and UW Control was seemingly back on the menu, or at least more than it was with Zendikar Rising.
Likely because it didn’t feature UW as a color pair, Strixhaven didn’t really bring anything of note to UW Control, specifically, but what it did was incentivize people to splash a third color again, this time Red because of how strong Expressive Iteration was. While the base deck was still UW, the trend of splashing a third color continued, as the deck cycled through all three pretty regularly in 2021. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms brought Hall of Storm Giants and now-format staple Portable Hole, and when Midnight Hunt came around, the deck picked up steam thanks to cards like Consider, Hullbreaker Horror, Memory Deluge, Deserted Beach, Sunset Revelry, and Fateful Absence, many of which were featured in musasabi’s fourth place Challenge finish on October 4.
But despite regaining steam in the meta, facing decks like Winota and Phoenix, UW spent most of 2021 in an identity crisis of what it wanted, trying on different faces and having to splash into other colors to get what it thought it wanted. But UW Control as a concept is very clean. It’s concise by design. It shouldn’t have to taint itself with a worse mana base and the potential inconsistencies that are attached with that. It should be enough on its own, and for the first part of the format’s history it was. But lately, it needed some help. Even as it came back on at the end of last year, it wasn’t quite itself, rather just a past version, hoping to be again what it was once before.
A New Hope
On February 18, 2022, almost exactly a half year ago, Wizards of the Coast released Kamigawa Neon Dynasty, which put the Pioneer format into double digits in terms of sets released while active. The much awaited return to Kamigawa saw the plane reinvented, from a traditional Japanese-based setting, to a new, Cyberpunk, futuristic Japan. While the set paid heavy homage to its first iteration, it was clearly different and much more unique, but still recognizable as the plane it once was.
Just three weeks before Neon Dynasty released on January 30, ArcanisPrime took third place in a challenge with this 75. On February 19, exactly one day after Neon Dynasty released, curekanta had the same third place Challenge finish with this 75.
Here you see the new UW Control. It pays homage to the past with cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Narset, Parter of Veils, and you get a peak of the cards that were contenders for the archetype while it was at its lowest point, like Jwari Disruption and Portable Hole. But what you don’t see is Azorius Charm which was delivered it’s obsoletion by March of Otherworldly Light, which is now one of the defining removal spells of the format as a whole.
You also see Farewell as a sweeper of choice, allowing UW Control players to completely eliminate nearly every possible threat, other than of course the ones they play in the form of Planeswalkers. The appropriately and succinctly named card has provided its namesake to several opponents since its release.
You see Eiganjo and Otawara, adding further flexibility to the manabase and providing utility removal options that are both uncounterable and evade Protection protects like you’d see on Shifting Ceratops.
But most importantly is the new face of the deck, The Wandering Emperor, who took the format by force upon Neon Dynasty’s release, and was herself a large reason for the reinvigoration of the archetype. One of the more mechanically unique Planeswalkers ever released, the ability to hold up her, a counterspell, and a card like Memory Deluge all on turn four without the opponent having any idea which of them is coming is an intimidating, dominant, and most importantly, flexible position for a control player to find themselves in. Add on top of that that she both makes and buffs an army all on her own and this fit is a match made in heaven and certainly the spark the deck needed.
Like it never left
Six month after the stimulus it needed, we find ourselves in the same spot, as you can see here from this list by Gabriel Nassif, which was good for an eighth place finish in the August 7 Challenge.
Streets of New Capenna came and went without adding much to the archetype, and though Winota and Expressive Iteration being banned from the format shook up the meta, UW Control’s place hasn’t changed. It has consistently been one of the very best decks in the format since Neon Dynasty’s release, and had it not gotten the propulsion into the future it did from Neon Dynasty, I’m not sure we’d be sitting here saying that.
UW Control is an archetype seemingly as old as time itself. While Spirits players (myself included) may have tried to take over the color pair’s identity, at the end of the day, it was never going to belong to any other deck other than control. It’s too synonymous. Saying the deck’s name is enough to strike fear and rage into a good percentage of the player base who don’t enjoy having their spells hopelessly countered, as they continue to helplessly play a game that was lost 10 turns before the loser’s life total mercifully hit zero.
While the deck is not unbeatable by any means and still has its share of weaknesses, it has been one of the pillars of Pioneer since the format’s inception. Through the bevy of combo and unfairness that went on in Pioneer’s early days, to the more balanced meta of today, UW Control is as timeless as the Planeswalker that had led it from the beginning, but as revamped as the face that leads it now.
Great article. You missed the part where some players got together in the beginning of the decks and said “What’s a deck we can play with so everyone hates playing against us EVEN if they win. And if they lose the games take forever while we toy with them endlessly.” Lol seriously tho good article. More history of decks articles would be cool.