Control has been lacking in the planeswalker department in Standard. With the rotation of Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Time Raveler, there have been very few options to help bolster the early-game of tap-out control decks. Luckily for us, the reactive spells have been potent enough to stave off attacks and produce the card advantage that helps control eventually turn the corner.
Removal and card draw have been excellent, especially in the black-based control decks. There is no shortage of early removal spells and the sweepers have been equally strong. Although nothing is as consistently good as Shatter the Sky, Extinction Event puts up a pretty good defense for those unable to produce white mana. With the perfect storm of strong removal in black, control has forgotten the Azorius guild in recent days.
Azorius Control lacks effective removal prior to the resolution of Shatter the Sky. Glass Casket has done the heavy lifting, removing early threats at sorcery speed on Turn 2. The artifact has been taxed heavily, expected to keep the control mage alive long enough to drop the more expensive white-based removal. Even though we have not seen any evidence of better, cheap white removal on the way, there is a planeswalker that could rescue Azorius Control from these core flaws.
Niko Aris was just previewed yesterday and caught my eye immediately. Any planeswalker card that lands in the Azorius colors is likely a future best friend of mine and this one is no different. Although it isn’t as powerful as its Azorius Control predecessors, it checks a few key boxes that makes it an auto inclusion in some control decks.
The mana cost is the most interesting part of Niko Aris. It has a similar bonus when cast, just like Jace, Mirror Mage. I wish Jace, Mirror Mage would have seen more play, but it lacks battlefield control. This has led it to land in most players’ sideboards as an option to increase the win percentage against the grindier decks of the format.
Niko Aris provides additional card advantage when more than three mana is put into it, similar to Jace, Mirror Mage, but the ceiling is much higher. Almost like a draw-X spell, excess mana put into this spell produces additional card advantage.
Clue tokens were great a few years ago and I have a feeling Shard tokens will be even better. The additional mana cost provides the controller with additional Shards, which draw a card after a scry 1 for the cost of two mana. This creation helps control players use excess mana in future turns to draw a bunch of high-quality cards. I see Niko Aris being cast for four and five mana often, guaranteeing some card advantage payoffs along with its other abilities.
The first ability on Niko Aris will rarely apply to streamlined Azorius Control players. For those still interested in Yorion, Sky Nomad like me, this first ability will be a giant source of card advantage. Having the ability to return the one copy of Yorion back to your hand, and then recast it to blink all applicable cards on the battlefield, is of great interest to me. I was often saddened after the initial resolution of Yorion because I knew it would be the only time my permanents would leave and return to the battlefield. But Niko Aris allows a rebuy of this effect and I’m hoping to see an additional control-friendly creature in Kaldheim that fits into this shell.
The second ability of Niko Aris is what makes it much stronger than Jace, Mirror Mage and a slam dunk for Azorius Control decks. Having removal on a three-mana planeswalker is huge. This aspect makes or breaks a card, putting it either in competitive play or the trade binder. Planeswalkers that fail to defend themselves are at a severe disadvantage, especially those that enter the battlefield in the early-game. Teferi, Time Raveler was such a dominant planeswalker because of its ability to remove a threat upon resolution, which is exactly what Niko Aris can do as well. Although the two damage for each card drawn is only to a tapped creature, it is still better than the typical alternative.
Most planeswalkers at this mana cost have had a hard time surviving in the past. The strength of Niko Aris is its ability to remove an enemy creature, and if it cannot, it can draw a card and absorb damage at the very least. This is where we see the strength of Jace, Mirror Mage, with an added chance of survival.
In the mid-game, this removal ability of Niko Aris can destroy creatures of epic proportions. Control is very capable of drawing a bunch of cards in one turn, allowing their second ability to demolish a threat with ease. There will be multiple scenarios where a Niko Aris enters the same turn card draw was used to get the job done. I am always looking for spells that assist in the early-game and make strong two-spell turns for future turns. Niko Aris is a versatile option with a lot of play in it.
The third ability is the staple of control across all formats. Drawing cards is what we pay these planeswalkers to do and Niko Aris gets the job done in that department. If mana was not initially dumped into the mana cost, then the third ability can help catch us up.
Scrying first and then drawing a card makes this ability much more desirable than the usual cantrips. With a starting loyalty of three, this ability can be used multiple times before having to +1. Since that first ability is narrow, it is vital that the other two only take one loyalty away. As alluded to earlier, there are matchups where Niko Aris will arrive just to draw a few cards and distract attackers. Shard tokens are the best future reward we can give ourselves for this investment, especially when the mana cost was only three to begin with.
The best part about the mana cost of Niko Aris is its interaction with Elspeth Conquers Death. This five-mana enchantment is the primary reason to run Azorius Control over all others, especially when Yorion is at the helm. One of the worst aspects of having very few good planeswalkers is the whiff at the end of the Elspeth Conquers Death cycle. Not returning a creature or planeswalker on the final ability produces a terrible feeling, as well as dropping the chance to win in many cases. There is nothing more powerful in the control spell book than exiling any three-mana-or-greater permanent, making spells cost more for a turn, and then returning a powerful permanent to the battlefield. When all three of these are active, Azorius Control can do some heavy damage in any matchup.
Niko Aris can arrive on Turn 3, get vanquished after providing some card advantage, and then triumphantly return with a completed Elspeth Conquers Death. Planeswalkers like this fit the formula perfectly, like the ones that rotated months ago. Niko Aris will join Teferi, Master of Time and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon as automatic inclusions to an Azorius Control deck that features Yorion.
Dream Trawler is another powerful figure that returns to the fight if we move away from Dimir Control, easily winning games on its own. There are still very few decks that can tango with this flying menace, giving control a safer avenue of victory. The early-game spells, like Niko Aris, make or break the control archetype.
The areas of concern I have with Niko Aris rest in the types of threats that we will be facing in Kaldheim Standard. Some creatures with haste, like Brushfire Elemental out of Gruul Aggro decks, are cleanly removed by the second ability. If other creatures on Turns 1 through 3 have low toughness, life for Niko Aris will be much easier.
There are also creatures with vigilance, like Questing Beast, which dodge both the planeswalker removal and Glass Casket. Dimir does not suffer from this pitfall, as it deploys one of its many instant-speed removal spells to destroy it on the spot. Although Azorius Control has Elspeth Conquers Death and Shatter the Sky, the other removal spells that join Niko Aris are limited in nature. Depending on how the format shakes out, the limited early-game removal may be able to carry the burden for the late-game effects to take control.
We have been spoiled by three-mana planeswalkers over the past few years. There have been some strong ones in the past, but nothing like what we have seen recently. Niko Aris is a drop in power level compared to those, but very serviceable for what control is trying to accomplish in the current Standard. If Yorion, Sky Nomad or a similar creature that impacts the battlefield is viable, the first ability will carry Niko Aris to that competitive level. Without such a creature, Niko Aris may be too fringe to make Azorius Control a contender, like its Dimir Control counterpart.