Azorius Options To Topple Pioneer’s Top Tier

Bryan Gottlieb is on the hunt for combo breakers in Pioneer! Check out his disruptive blue and white lists ahead of SCG Indianapolis!

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Rest in Peace, illustrated by Jason Rainville

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Two out of three ain’t bad.

Meat Loaf

Pioneer is at its first real crossroads. In the period of weekly trips to the Renton Applebee’s to discuss format health, there was a reasonable expectation that any deck which inserted itself a bit too snugly into the top tier was destined to draw the ire of Wizards of the Coast. Now, having moved on from the experimental “Pioneer bans are always on the table” to the new, non-experimental, “all bans are always on the table” approach to format management, players are presumably forced to take it upon themselves to correct a metagame which is rapidly moving towards two clearly preferable deck choices. Or maybe there will be bans tomorrow? Who knows!

It doesn’t matter. Alterations to the Pioneer Banned List certainly occupy the category of “things I cannot change.” Since it is easy to be courageous in the absence of consequence, you can bet I’m going to take some shots at unseating Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter.

Is it possible to change the face of Pioneer and unseat these two decks? Or should you just be playing these decks until bannings prevent you from doing so?

Don’t be sad. I’m not sure either.

I do know how I want to start trying though. Some of the best options for counterplay against Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach lie in Azorius colors, especially when we talk about sideboard options.

Rest in Peace Gideon of the Trials Essence Scatter

However, most current Azorius lists (and Mono-White and Mono-Blue lists) are forgetting a key lesson when it comes to leveraging these disruptive elements. In the current era of Magic, these cards are only speed bumps, not roadblocks. Given enough time, Lotus Breach can easily remove a Rest in Peace and combo off. Dimir Inverter will assemble its own disruption to fight through yours or assemble too much card advantage to keep pace with.

Azorius Control has held onto some metagame share in the post Theros Beyond Death era. It probably shouldn’t have, but we control mages have a really tough time letting go. I know I’m still playing the deck occasionally. Since I’ll certainly be asked, here’s my current list. Please don’t play it.

I’m not saying this deck can’t win games against every deck in the format. It’s just by playing this archetype you’ve thrown up a white flag during the deck selection process, and you are letting bias and preference dictate your deck choice. And that’s fine! You’re allowed to engage with Magic as you see fit, and I want you to play the deck you are happiest playing. Just be honest with yourself about what you are doing.

Azorius Control must drastically reconfigure to find even matchups against the most-played archetypes, and what is the reward elsewhere? You punish the fringiest of decks like… *checks notes* …Mono-Green Aggro. You can and should ask for more.

The easiest way to do so is by putting a clock on your opponents. Gideon of the Trials has seen a dramatic surge in popularity for its ability to disrupt the combo kills taking over the format. As is always the case, the card is only going to shine in decks that really leverage all its abilities. Can we do something with the fact that Gideon is also a three-mana 4/4? I think the answer lies in Pioneer’s past.

The discussion of Heart of Kiran VS Smuggler’s Copter was a real one in the early days of Pioneer. While there’s no question that Smuggler’s Copter was deservedly the winner of most of those debates, Heart of Kiran is a real Pioneer-level threat. If you are upping the three-mana planeswalker count by looking to Gideon of the Trials, it gets even better. There are some reasonable Turn 5 kills in the deck now, and that’s without using the one-mana slot. That type of closing power can turn Damping Sphere and Rest in Peace into legit hassles against Lotus Breach. Also weighing in on that matchup is Lavinia, Azorius Renegade.

Lavinia, Azorius Renegade

I got talked into exploring the card after a tweet from Michael Jacob. He correctly pointed out that the Lavinia beats up on Dig Through Time, Bring to Light, Pore over Pages, and The Great Henge, and even plays well alongside your Spell Quellers. The anemic body and legendary subtype make it tough to go all-in on the card, but I believe it deserves a look in more aggressive slants on Azorius.

When it comes to the Dimir Inverter matchup, I’m lower on specific hate cards. Instead, I want to focus on upgrading my existing plans. Mystical Dispute and Essence Scatter are my two favorite forms of countermagic for the matchup, and I’m excited to see if Ojutai’s Command can give our opponents even more pause when faced with open mana.

Countering creatures is also big game against the Sultai Delirium decks staking out a solid claim to Tier 1.5. Combine this with our Rest in Peace, and we’ve got the foundations of a plan for all the top decks.

Azorius isn’t the only deck that stands to benefit from a more aggressive stance. Mono-Blue and Mono-White decks have been a part of Pioneer since the beginning. However, Mono-White’s shift to a more midrange approach focused on Heliod led to an underwhelming set up performances at the most recent Players Tours. Mono-Blue hasn’t ever been in Pioneer’s top tier. Can some fresh builds turn things around?

Magic Online grinder aspiringspike is rapidly ascending my list of deckbuilders to watch, and this take on Mono-Blue Devotion does a great job illustrating why. Four copies of Leyline of Anticipation have shifted this deck from an anemic beatdown setup that does nothing particularly well to an explosive mana engine with a Fish-like disruption plan in sideboard games.

This is a unique way of setting up your 75. It acknowledges the weakness of unconditional countermagic in the format but takes full advantage of a known opponent. While you are likely playing Game 1s against Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter as an underdog due to a lack of interaction, that changes in a big way with Jace’s Defeat, Mystical Dispute, and Aether Gust at the ready for sideboard games. Meanwhile, your deck is still capable of reasonably aggressive draws that can punish a stumbling opponent in Game 1.

If this deck has a pressure point that I’m concerned about, it’s Thoughtseize. Playing Leyline of Anticipation means you are starting many games down a card, and your card advantage via Gadwick depends heavily on having enough permanents on the battlefield to leverage a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. In the same way, your aggression requires having enough permanents to make Master of Waves and Thassa meaningful threats. All your branching paths remain card-hungry. With Thoughtseize remaining a format staple, it’s hard to completely embrace Mono-Blue at this stage. How about an aggressive slant on Mono-White though?

It’s strange to me that the number of Arcanist’s Owl in typical Mono-White Devotion lists was immediately set at four given the problematic hit rate. Your combo kills are supposed to be an unexpected bonus in this deck, but the core plan must be aggression. Benalish Marshal does a nice job enabling both sides of the coin by pumping a Walking Ballista, as does Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit.

Meanwhile, if you ever open on a hand flush with Arcanist’s Owls, you are priced into playing a midrange game that gets eaten up by both Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter. I’d rather look to the sideboard for the last of my Owls. They will become far more effective when we are able to choose key enchantments and artifacts for the matchup we are playing.

Arcanist's Owl Benalish Marshal

We’re venturing into “Oops All Gideons” territory here, but the idea of making a Gideon of the Trials emblem and asking an opponent to account for up to four different Gideons is appealing. Again, the amped-up aggression of our build better leverages all of Gideon’s many beatdown modes.

I’ve seen builds including Leyline of Sanctity to create a mana boost via Nykthos. While I appreciate the ingenuity, the payoff on Leyline of Sanctity is simply too low. The ability does little to benefit either of your gameplans, and if you are trying to accelerate your mana to speed up your ability to win the game, why not just play a card like Benalish Marshal instead? Leyline here would open up the same weaknesses against Thoughtseize that Mono-Blue is apt to experience, and I can’t recommend that given the current state of the metagame.

As for that metagame, it does feel like something must change. Some of the biggest proponents of Pioneer, including our own Todd Anderson, are starting to sour on the format that was really the surprise darling the Magic world in 2019. On my end, I mostly see the current state of things as a new puzzle to solve, but there’s no question that if I spend too long banging my head against the brick walls that are Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter, I’ll eventually just turn my attention elsewhere.

However, I’m excited about the promise the lists in this article show, and with your help, maybe we can just move the metagame along without relying on Banned List-based deus ex machina. Or maybe I just lack the wisdom to identify even more new Magic cards that I just can’t beat…

Underworld Breach Thassa's Oracle

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