Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift was an obvious archetype made available in Historic via Kaladesh Remastered, but few people had high hopes for it. Refurbish on God-Pharaoh’s Gift was fine in Standard and even made the finals of a Pro Tour, but it never dominated that format or even aged well with that format’s growth. How could a deck that was good in the era of Ixalan stand up to Throne of Eldraine and Jumpstart in addition to just competing against a larger card pool?
Yet it has done exactly that. Not only did Piper Powell make the Top 8 of last weekend’s SCG Tour Online $5K Kaldheim Championship Qualifier, her actual matches were evidence the deck was good and not just a case of “Piper has Top 8’ed like twenty different online events this year; some of those are bound to be running hot with bad decks even if most are playing well with good decks.”
Here’s the unlikely success story of Azorius Gift in Historic.
The Case for Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift
- 4 Angel of Invention
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 3 Seasoned Hallowblade
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
If you look at Piper’s deck, it is astoundingly similar to the Standard versions of this deck. As in, 30 of the spells were also in Pascal Maynard’s list from Pro Tour Ixalan.
Again, why is this a good deck?
You can point directly to two four-ofs that weren’t in the deck at that time: Skyclave Apparition and Grafdigger’s Cage. But it’s not just those cards existing, but a lot of context around them existing.
Skyclave Apparition really needs no introduction. It’s a three-mana white creature that doesn’t dominate games like an Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath does, yet it’s competing for the position of most-played creature in Modern. Historic shares a lot of the same condensed-curve aspects of Modern that let Skyclave Apparition answer basically anything, but lacks the Oops All Spells-style decks that can ignore Apparition as interaction.
But white has suffered as a color in Historic, or has been relegated to cases like Azorius Auras where Apparition competes with Lurrus of the Dream-Den’s restriction. Between original Kaladesh and now there has been a real lack of successful white creature decks without the card Venerated Loxodon, and Historic is even more oppressive to those decks than their native formats were: Extinction Event, Uro, Mayhem Devil, and how Muxus, Goblin Grandee is a better version of the same plan.
Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift is really the first deck that wants to play a three-cost white creature that has a plan powerful enough to fit into the rest of the format.
Beyond that, this deck really, really wants a card like Skyclave Apparition. In Standard, it lost a ton of Game 1s because assembling a Turn 4 Refurbish requires a lot of stuff coming together. You need to find a Refurbish when you only play four, find a God-Pharaoh’s Gift when you only play four, get a creature in the graveyard, hit your lands – and all of this with cantrips that cost two or three mana.
The deck played much better after sideboarding, when it could force the game to grind out a bit, always threaten to Refurbish something, and force your opponent to play around that. If they’re set up too defensively, you can just cast cards and win. Angel of Invention is almost Baneslayer Angel, eternalized Champion of Wits buries opponents in cards, and you can cast God-Pharaoh’s Gift from hand and force out an Abrade before Refurbishing it.
Skyclave Apparition lets you bring some of that interactive gameplay to Game 1 of every match, and it lets you do it even better in Games 2 and 3. Not only do you get more interaction in less slots, having Skyclave Apparition do it as a creature is a huge gain.
When sideboarding out cards to become more interactive, often your low-impact creatures are easy cuts. That makes your fast Gift draws way worse, since even making a 4/4 on the first turn you control Gift is the difference between your deck functioning or your deck doing nothing. Skyclave Apparition as a 4/4 Zombie is certainly something if you’re trying to stabilize before you untap and dig for another thing to get back.
Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift is at its best as a False Tempo deck and Skyclave Apparition lets it push that angle harder.
There are four Grafdigger’s Cage in Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift because it doesn’t stop anything the deck is trying to do. Cage only covers creatures returning, so Refurbishing a God-Pharaoh’s Gift is clear. Gift exiles the creature and then makes a token, so that’s clear. Eternalizing Champion of Wits works the same way.
The same can’t be said about a lot of other decks in the format. Grafdigger’s Cage feels ubiquitous in Historic because it’s so good against so many strategies. There are literally decks that play Cage despite it shutting off their own cards because they need to stop Muxus more than they need their own Lurrus or Uro.
Grafdigger’s Cage being so good also keeps other graveyard hate out of the format. Not that Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift can’t switch to a control role and handle a bit of interaction, but life is much easier when those sideboarded games against functional hate are the exception and not the norm.
This all points to the secret sauce behind Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift winning. It isn’t as powerful as Mono-Red Goblins, but it doesn’t have to be. It does something on the right power level to dominate games, and backs that up by being a great deck when forced to interact or play through interaction.
If there’s one big issue with Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift, it’s that your days won’t ever be easy playing it in events. Even relative to Four-Color Midrange, you have way fewer free wins.
If you play Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift as an all-in combo deck, you’re going to lose a lot. There’s a certainty when you go Growth Spiral; Extinction Event; Nissa, Who Shakes the World that doesn’t exist when you’re sweating if Strategic Planning hits what you need. You sometimes have to plan for a slow game because the punishment for missing on finding your combo with cantrips is immediately losing, and you also have to know when your hand has to risk it because it doesn’t have the tools to play fair. Just settle in and get ready for some games decided by making seven-mana plays from your hand and graveyard.
As a deck ported over from the Vancouver Mulligan era, it’s fitting the best hands with Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift are the ones you wanted during that era. Lands and a cantrip make a good start. This is because all your cantrips are the key enablers for getting your combo into the graveyard in addition to the traditional role of finding what you need. I’m not super-picky about what pairings of these cards my hands have, though if my only “cantrip” is Search for Azcanta I’m looking for a Minister of Inquiries to set up the Turn 3 transform.
If I don’t have a cantrip, I’m looking for a Refurbish to go with whatever idle action I have. There are only a few ways to discard a God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and many more ways to mill. Having a Refurbish already gives the hand the most outs to combo. A Refurbish plus a Minister of Inquiries is also a good enough start to keep most hands with anything else, and even if I said there are fewer discard spells, having a Gift in hand is a big plus since it gives you more assured draws to the combo.
If I don’t have cantrips or a Refurbish, there’s a very narrow selection of hands flooded on Skyclave Apparition that I would keep. Everything else goes back. Minister of Inquiries without a Refurbish or cantrip? Does nothing. Seasoned Hallowblade and some Angels? Not good enough.
Pay attention to your mana in non-cantrip hands. Double Skyclave Apparition doesn’t do you any good on a two-lander with only blue mana sources.
I don’t have a strict sideboard plan with Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift, partly because the list is still evolving, partly because I do a lot of my trimming to fit in interaction by feel.
Most of the sideboard is obvious – bring in Wrath of God against creatures you need to kill and Negate against spells – but Grafdigger’s Cage is notoriously tricky. I bring in Grafdigger’s Cage if it drastically changes my opponent’s angles of attack. Obvious cases are Mono-Red Goblins and Temur Neostorm, but it’s less clear against Uro and Sacrifice variants. The currently stock Sultai or Four-Color Midrange Uro deck will just beat you with Nissa if you Cage them, and your Angel of Invention plan already beats the Scrapheap Scroungers and Cauldron Familiars of Rakdos Sacrifice. But add in Collected Company from Jund Sacrifice and I’ll likely have one or two Cages in my deck, and against Aetherworks Marvel decks with Uro, every Cage is getting in there.
My first cuts are almost always some of the low-impact creatures. Minister of Inquiries is not a card you want if you’re attrition focused in a matchup unless it is blocking Bomat Courier, and it should be easy to tell when Seasoned Hallowblade’s 3/1 body isn’t impactful in a matchup. I’m not afraid to cut all copies of these cards when they’re suboptimal, but I’m more likely to end up with a copy or two of Minister when the concern is drawing multiples being too big a cost, since Minister is a much better combo enabler than Hallowblade. There are rare cases Skyclave Apparition could fall into this category if it doesn’t kill anything, but I’ve yet to find them.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to suggest cutting Seasoned Hallowblade from the deck, but anything you replace it with likely has a similar ability to be trimmed at relatively low cost when it isn’t directly optimized for the matchup.
After those, I look at the cantrips.
Search for Azcanta comes out if the matchup is going to be fast, and importantly when it will remain fast after sideboarding. If the overlap of Wrath of God with your maindeck interaction and combo forces everything to slow down a lot, or if your opponent sideboarded a ton of interaction in Game 2, then you probably want access to Search to be full control.
Strategic Planning is not a fundamentally good card, and I’m fine trimming copies if the Turn 4 combo is going to be less important. I mix in trimming a Chart a Course in some narrow scenarios, largely scaled based on the odds I’m attacking with a Champion of Wits in the mid-game for the hard draw-two mode of Chart and the odds I’m going for a Turn 4 combo.
You can trim on the core combo if your opponent is really pressuring it with interaction, but I rarely drop below three copies of Refurbish or Gift.
Angel of Invention is only trimmed if I’m playing the matchup as a pure fast combo or tempo deck and don’t really care what I reanimate with Gift as long as it attacks. The best example is against Temur Neostorm.
Improvements and Explorations
While Piper’s list is certainly good enough to play as is, I think there’s a lot of room to develop Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift further.
I refuse to believe Authority of the Consuls is good enough for Historic. Even in Standard, it was always a huge trap to play. Unless your opponent was all haste creatures, you were better off playing any interactive spell because killing a creature nets you more life. It buys you a turn against a Muxus or Neoform kill, but they still control all those creatures and win on untapping. You wanted a Grafdigger’s Cage to stop that, not something that forces you to also have a Wrath of God. If you really need more Grafdigger’s Cage, play some Containment Priests.
I tried Pact of Negation since it seemed like a better way to protect expensive sorceries than Negate or Mystical Dispute, but I ended up hating it. The Historic decks you want those cards against are frequently matchups where you also need to stop their proactive spells, and with Pact of Negation too often you got caught paying for it on a turn you wanted to do other things. Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift is as much a control deck as it is a combo deck, so stick with traditional counterspells.
I also tried alternate big threats like Baneslayer Angel as an out to graveyard hate, but Angel of Invention does that job well enough without dedicated sideboard slots. If you do decide to run one of these, make sure it’s Lyra Dawnbringer since you actually play other Angels. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a bit different since it serves the roles of interaction and counterspell-support against other combo decks in addition to being that alternate finisher.
I did have some issues with Hushbringer out of the Azorius Auras decks. It stymies all your creatures, which leaves this list with just Wrath of God as interaction and their Selfless Saviors mess that up. I think you need a couple of spot removal spells to hedge against this. I can see a single Settle the Wreckage in a similar role just to break people’s brains in open decklists or crush their souls on ladder.
Hushbringer also makes the Cataclysmic Gearhulk that Dom Harvey suggested dubious. Just play another real sweeper and avoid that issue.
Temple of Enlightenment is not good when you’re trying to hit your seventh land in some games or even just topdeck a fourth untapped land. I have yet to get burned by Glacial Fortress with Temple and Ipnu Rivulet, but I know it’s just waiting to get me. When Kaldheim brings the Azorius Pathway, that is an immediate replacement, but I would trim down to one or two Temples with one or two Fabled Passage. Passage also enters the battlefield tapped early, but it ends up as a basic for Glacial Fortress and fills your graveyard for Search for Azcanta in those scenarios. The only reason to keep any Temples around is Skyclave Apparition, which can sometimes make the actual Azorius land better than having weird Island / Plains splits early.
The less certain updates all revolve around disliking Seasoned Hallowblade. The card has all the issues I described with Kari Zev, Skyship Raider last week. The Historic format just passes it by too fast in most matchups, leaving it a dead piece of cardboard with the text “discard a card” on it. Even as a blocker against Mono-Red Aggro, they have Soul-Scar Mage to just ignore indestrictible. At the least I want to cut down to two copies so I never draw multiples, but I’m likely to cut them all and try things out.
I noticed an immediate similarity with Ghostly Pilferer, which might be better in some matchups but is still more of the same medium stuff. I think we can do better than that.
The one draw to these arbitrary two-drops is they decluster your curve from Extinction Event. Your God-Pharaoh’s Gift copies have their original converted mana costs, so everything else gets cleaned up by one Event.
Before I get to any other options, I’m fairly sure the card I would start with is Sphinx of Foresight, which offers better opening hand setups in a deck that is trying to assemble specific stuff, a fine backup body to cast in fair games, and just a creature to reanimate. Checks all the boxes for me. It isn’t even a nonbo with Minister of Inquiries, since if you have both you are honestly hoping to scry into milling a God-Pharaoh’s Gift with Minister.
The simple updated version I would suggest:
- 4 Angel of Invention
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 4 Sphinx of Foresight
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
Going deeper, the two-drops that interested me the most were Meddling Mage and Tithe Taker. Meddling Mage is just more interaction if the format skews towards combo, whereas Tithe Taker is both the roadblock and makes it a bit more miserable for opponents trying to interact with it. That small tax can really drag a game into the weird slow territory where Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift tends to excel.
The other obvious option is playing something that improves your seven-drop slam plan. Palladium Myr doesn’t solve the all-odd-costs issue and isn’t a good card, but it’s the most mana return per card in these colors. Solemn Simulacrum is the better card, but it isn’t anything special either. If you include either of these, do so in small quantities. Oddly a less expensive ramp spell wouldn’t help much, since skipping two mana doesn’t help your cantrip into Refurbish plan at all. The only time it does is when you have the dream draw with Minister of Inquiries and Search for Azcanta already covers that Turn 3 setup.
I don’t think the Historic mana is good enough to splash right now, especially when this deck is spending early turns on no-impact cantrips. A Breeding Pool is a huge hit to your life total when nothing you are doing is actively defensive. If Satyr Wayfinder were reprinted into the format I would consider it, but right now the only thing I could see wanting is Yasharn, Implacable Earth for all the same reasons Sultai Midrange turned into Four-Color Midrange for that card.
Along the lines of weird hate that is already in-color, you could play a couple of Nimble Obstructionists. It stops the Neoform combo by hitting a copy trigger, a Muxus enters-the-battlefield trigger, an Embercleave trigger, an Ulamog cast trigger, and just a ton of odd stuff you wouldn’t have thought about.
I didn’t look too hard at the other artifacts that would be required to set these up, but Padeem, Consul of Innovation and Arcanist’s Owl made the list of stuff that caught my eye. I think the four-cost on both is asking a little much, but if Padeem reliably draws cards even if you don’t control God-Pharaoh’s Gift, I could be convinced it’s actually good. Padeem may prove to be a reasonable sideboard singleton for when you have Grafdigger’s Cage in your deck for this exact reason.
The absolute strangest idea I contemplated? Vizier of Tumbling Sands plus Lotus Field. Vizier is a ramp creature normally that naturally ends up in your graveyard for Gift at low cost, and with double Vizier and a Lotus Field you can get to seven mana for Gift on Turn 4. Obviously an unlikely scenario, but you gotta dream big sometimes.
So where does this put Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift in the big picture? I did suggest playing Four-Color Midrange in last week’s Historic What We’d Play, and I’ll fully admit I wouldn’t give Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift the title of “clear best deck” in Historic. But it certainly has the tools to compete and room to grow, and everyone is still focused on combatting high-impact threats like Uro and Muxus. Azorius God-Pharaoh’s Gift is the right kind of exploit for the Historic metagame, and I expect to see more of it in the top-table results of future events.