Right now, Azorius Control is the best deck in Theros Beyond Death Standard and, believe it or not, it isn’t close.
Let’s do a quick refresher on the list I used to win SCG Philadelphia this past weekend and go over where it came from and what it’s trying to accomplish. But before I do, I must mention that the first iteration of this archetype people really saw in action is a credit to Corey Baumeister and the rest of Team BCW.
Corey won SCG Richmond with this list and it’s because he identified three big truths of this format. The first is that Elspeth Conquers Death is the single best card in Theros Beyond Death Standard at the moment. It’s pretty close to unconditional removal and it’s proactive. It’s also true that the value of the card swings wildly by what it’s returning to the battlefield with its third chapter, which brings us to the second truth of Standard.
Dream Trawler is the best creature threat you can play. Period. There is no other card in the format as dominant as this one. Dream Trawler seemed to be dismissed as just a broken Limited rare early in Theros Beyond Death preview season, but the reality is it’s a threat that’s extremely difficult to kill, it has lifelink and a large toughness stat completely invalidating swarming around it, and it snowballs games to unlosable positions almost as soon as you untap with it. It’s the actual perfect pairing with Elspeth Conquers Death as a game-ending threat to return with the third chapter, and Team BCW’s SCG Richmond win is due in part to understanding this and registering the full playset of both cards.
The third truth of Standard is that Teferi, Time Raveler is the best planeswalker in the format. I believe this was true in previous Standard formats, but Nissa Who Shakes the World and Oko, Thief of Crowns had done a fantastic job pushing Teferi out to pasture in recent months. However, Oko is banned now and Elspeth Conquers Death is a brutal answer to Nissa, so Teferi reigns supreme again!
His synergy with Elspeth Conquers Death is another reason for his comeback. He’s a cheap planeswalker that can affect the battlefield early, draw you some cards, and force opponents to send him to the graveyard with his powerful static ability. This means he’s probably in the bin already before your Elspeth Conquers Death goes to reanimate something and, in fact, I’m often very happy to almost throw my first Teferi away to make my copies of Elspeth Conquers Death even better!
After Corey’s win in Richmond, the Standard metagame started to change. He showed people how powerful Azorius Control was, but they did not go far enough to adjust their builds for the metagame this would create. Corey’s list is tuned to crush aggressive decks but is actually built pretty poorly for the mirror. Which brings me to what I played in Philadelphia this weekend.
The biggest change I made to the list was in the manabase. Castle Vantress is a fine card and certainly a welcome addition to the deck, but simply put it’s just worse than Castle Ardenvale. I’m still uncertain if Castle Ardenvale or Celestial Colonnade is the best control land/win condition of all time, but the fact there’s a question there speaks strongly to how powerful Castle Ardenvale is.
I also believe people have defaulted to playing more copies of Castle Vantress than Castle Ardenvale because The Birth of Meletis is tricking them into playing more Plains in their lists than they need to. If you play fewer Plains, you can fit more copies of Castle Ardenvale in your list and still have a good color distribution in your manabase. I see people register the fifth and even sixth Plains in lists due to believing they need to have search targets for extra copies of The Birth of Meletis. You don’t. This deck has ways to discard for value, whether for Chemister’s Insight or protecting your Dream Trawler.
Speaking of Chemister’s Insight, that was my second big difference for the deck. I cut Glass Casket for more card draw and that was a specific call to be better versus Temur Reclamation and the mirror. I believe Chemister’s insight gives you a big edge Game 1 versus those decks, which matters a lot in timed rounds with control decks. I was happy to lose Game 1 versus Mono-Red Aggro and try to win both sideboard games if it meant I would win all my Game 1s versus Temur Reclamation and the mirror. Simply put, the Mono-Red matchups will always reach their natural conclusion and you’re not even guaranteed a Game 2 versus Temur Reclamation or the mirror because the games can take so long.
Here’s a quick rundown of cards people have liked or mentioned for Azorius Control in the past and why I chose to exclude them.
I think Narset, Parter of Veils and Chemister’s Insight are just better versions of this effect. Given that I’m about 3-4% to ever discard an Elspeth Conquers Death, the card is just “draw three, discard two” too often, which is not acceptable when you could cast Narset or Chemister’s Insight for similar mana costs.
This card is actually interesting and close to being a real inclusion in the deck, but the card draw taking two extra turns can be too costly later in games. “Great on Turn 2 with severe diminishing returns” has me not including it.
I think you can play a copy or two of Time Wipe and it’s pretty good in some matchups, but five mana is just too slow in this build if you aren’t also playing Glass Casket and I don’t like that it competes on curve with Elspeth Conquers Death.
I’ve heard people suggest this card can help you win mirrors, but in my experience, it’s just lost to Castle Ardenvale being more powerful at making 1/1s. I could see maybe adding it in addition to more copies of Castle Ardenvale, but in general I don’t believe this card is very good.
I do like Banishing Light in the Azorius Control archetype and I was happy to have it in my sideboard to be a catch-all, but getting it exiled by Elspeth Conquers Death or bounced by Teferi is just too bad and I’m happy to leave it in the sideboard for now.
Heliod’s Intervention is an amazing sideboard for specifically Jund Sacrifice decks. Those decks already struggle to beat a Dream Trawler, so until they rebuild to figure that out, it’s staying out of my sideboard.
Thassa’s Intervention is the card I was least sure on. I did like its flexibility but found the card to be generally too expensive for the effect I wanted and was happier to play cheaper and more specific countermagic or card draw spells so I could double-spell or cast a spell and activate Castle Ardenvale more often.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
For this matchup you want to go full tap-out control, play to the battlefield as much as you possibly can, and try to win with a lifelink flyer. It’s not super-complicated but you do want to prioritize using your other two-mana removal before Aether Gust, since it can protect you from Embercleave.
VS Temur Reclamation
The trick to this matchup is to focus every part of the game around your planeswalkers and try not to minus them unless it’s necessary. Once you have the opponent focused on beating Teferi and/or Narset, you get to land a Dream Trawler and run away with the game.
VS Azorius Control
This matchup is all about Castle Ardenvale. Activating the powerful land and creating an army makes the opponent act first and play into your counters, causing them to lose. The next-most-important thing is Elspeth Conquers Death. My favorite play to make is to cast an Elspeth Conquers Death to exile one of their permanents and then bounce it with your Teferi to get some value and protect your Elspeth Conquers Death from getting exiled by theirs.
VS Simic Ramp
I would bring in two copies of Mystical Dispute against Risen Reef versions of Simic Ramp that also include Thassa, Deep-Dwelling and/or Agent of Treachery and cut the other copies of Shatter the Sky.
This matchup is about countering their first few plays and then sticking a Dream Trawler. Once Trawler is on the battlefield, you want to use your enchantment-based removal to clear things that can block Trawler, and they fall too far behind to catch up with you.
VS Mono-Black Devotion
VS Jeskai Fires
Jeskai Fires is very clunky versus Azorius Control when it becomes an instant-speed, counter-all-their-stuff deck. Just don’t let them land an early Teferi and out-card them with your superior threats.
VS Jund Sacrifice
This matchup is all about Trail of Crumbs – you cannot let them get it going. Banishing Light it. Aether Gust it. Bounce it with Teferi. It doesn’t matter. Once you stop Trail of Crumbs, this deck loses pretty badly to Dream Trawler, so just Trawler them out like everyone else!