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Azorius Commander: Weighing the Options

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

Editor’s Note: Legit MTG is participating in Azorius theme week alongside Daily MTG and other websites in the Magic community. Look for articles about the blue-white guild to join our regular features. And don’t worry. The other Return to Ravnica guilds will get equal treatment in upcoming weeks.

In order to properly celebrate Azorius Week, I wanted to look at the guild from a Commander perspective and try to break down what makes it tick. What strategies does Azorius suggest? Are there defining cards? What commanders define the flavor of the guild? (And what ones don’t?). Why should someone play Azorius in Commander?

In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t an easy task for me. The reason?

I just flat-out do not like Azorius in Commander. But I’m trying to change that.

Oil And Water

Let me explain exactly why I took on this challenge. Part of the reason I wanted to tackle Azorius is actually to challenge my comfort zone. The typical Azorius guild strategy (which we’ll tackle further on) sits completely at odds with my normal Commander comfort zone, and I really want to try to get over that and see what I’m missing out on. After all, the flavor is fantastic. (What Ravnica flavor isn’t?)

It’s very telling that I’ve had an unused Tundra sitting in my binder unused for months and months. I never have unused Revised dual lands; I always feel compelled to build around them when they show up.

Yet there it is.

I also think it’s important to try new things in general, or you could miss some pretty life-affirming experiences. Case in point: I never touched a bite of pizza until I was thirteen. Weird, right? I can’t explain the hangup, but once I eventually tried a slice, I discovered what turned out to be my all-time favorite food.

Now, my doctor says I have high cholesterol and I need to eat more salad. Depressing.

Let’s try this another way …

Oil And … Something That Goes Nicely With Oil?

Azorius, by nature, suggests a classic-style counter-based control. This extends to actual Counterspell variants, and also places focus on ‘prison’ components designed to deter opposing strategies. Part of the reason I tend to steer clear of this type of control deck in Commander is that it represents a difficult strategy to impose over a multiplayer environment. For the same reason that a board sweeper like Wrath of God is usually preferable to spot removal in Commander, it’s really hard to keep a table of opponents at bay with a handful of one-to-one counter spells.

I realize there’s more to it than that, however, so let’s examine some guild flavor to really get a feel for what Azorius represents. We’ll start by rating the guild mechanics.

Forecast

The first time we saw Azorius in the original Ravnica block, it brought the forecast mechanic to the table. It allowed you to sandbag spells and gain incremental value for a reduced mana cost during your upkeep. For those who don’t remember, forecast also was responsible for one of the most irritating standard decks of all time. (The soft-lock lifegain “combo” deck involved repeatedly forecasting Proclamation of Rebirth to endlessly recur Martyr of Sands.)

Notable Commander-friendly forecast cards include Govern the Guildless and Skyscribing. Card draw and steal effects are both cornerstones of the format, so these cards tend to pop up more often than arguably inefficient effects such as Plumes of Peace or Steeling Stance.

How does this mechanic really play in Commander? Honestly, it’s a tough sell. The most notable Commander forecast card is Sky Hussar, and that’s due almost entirely to the enters-the-battlefield untap effect, which goes infinite with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. It may as well not even forecast at all.

The main issue with forecast as a mechanic is that the design promotes small amounts of card advantage over time. Coupled with the extreme timing restriction, these cards simply don’t see much play in Commander because there are simply better (and stronger) ways to gain most of the effects, without giving up the flexibility.

Detain

The new Azorius mechanic that shows up in Return to Ravnica is arguably a bit stronger and relevant for Commander. The detain trigger allows you to turn off a target creature or non-land permanent (there are no ways to detain land, so you’ll still need a way to deal with Maze of Ith) until your next turn. Creatures cannot attack or block, and activated abilities cannot be played.

It is early still, but likely Commander notables include Martial Law, New Prahv Guildmage and Archon of the Triumvirate. Archon is arguably the best of the bunch, but most Guildmages see Commander play, and Martial Law is a good fit for enchantment-based decks.

Is detain better than forecast? Detain cards will work their way into the format through the bigger, splashier options — I’ve already seen the Archon get use, for example — but it provides a reasonably-sized evasive body that also offers multiple instances of detain, and is probably the high-water mark for the mechanic.

The real problem with detain in Commander is the same issue I have with counter spells. With the exception of Archon, detain is always a one-for-one answer. Worse yet, it doesn’t actually get rid of a threat, so it will need to be dealt with again the following turn. If you’re in white, why detain a creature if you can just hit it with Swords to Plowshares and be done? Or hit that Greater Good with Return to Dust, instead of offering the controller the window to respond to the detain trigger once a turn?

Perhaps most importantly, detain also forces you to violate a very critical unwritten Commander law that states, “Thou shalt not prevent people from playing with their cards.” This is the rule that makes people lose their minds with anger when they get targeted with Mindslaver or lose all of their lands to an Obliterate. Detain falls in line with these effects a little too well. Dangling the carrot of letting the player who is stuck in top-deck mode have the answer they finally drew into sit inactive in front of them without being able to actually utilize it. Prepare to hear, “Attack you for detaining my creature.” repeatedly if you shut off the wrong target at the wrong time.

The bottom line is neither mechanic is particularly relevant to Commander. There are simply better ways to accomplish the effects you get from forecast, and detain is a stalling tactic in two colors that can remove or bounce threats very easily instead. It also runs the risk of creating a hostile game environment.

Mechanic Grade: C-

I’ll be honest here. That did very little to turn things around in my head, but I’m willing to look deeper. Let’s grade some of the notable Azorius cards next to see if things pick up.

Dovescape

This card is classic Azorius with a twist. In a vacuum, Dovescape plays a classic control role, shutting down non-creature strategies cold with a passive enchantment-based single-card solution.

Without the vacuum, though, it usually gets used in conjunction with cards like Guile, Leyline of Singularity and/or Humility to soft-lock the entire board. Remember the unwritten Commander law I mentioned above? Yeah … this one breaks that any which way it goes.

We actually had a player run out Humility, Dovescape and some sort of -1/-1 effect (possibly Night of Soul’s Betrayal) to grind a five-player game to a complete halt at our local store. The problem was the player didn’t have any good way to actually win the game, so everyone sat around doing absolutely nothing until people finally got angry/bored/homicidal/all of the above and quit the game. Nobody has played the card ever since out of fear for life and limb.

I’m holding out for someone to make good on threats to run birds tribal with Kangee, Aerie Keeper, but until that day, I can’t see this one ever doing anything positive.

Grade: D-

Swift Silence/Sphinx’s Revelation

These two are getting lumped together because of the delivery of two guild-favorable mechanics lumped together in one tidy package. This is a bit of a go-to for the Wizards design team when combining color identities these days, and it does work. Some other notable examples are the “Putrefy” cycle from the original Ravnica block.

I can’t deny the utility of cards like this. I can’t get very excited about them either, but they represent solid role players and see a ton of use in Commander.

Grade: B

Azorius Guildmage

I really like the Guildmages in principle. They play out in the same way the previous category does, except they come stapled to a body. This is the “Regrowth-versus-Eternal Witness” gambit we’re starting to see more and more of from Wizards R&D, and it nearly always resonates well with Commander players. (How many of you pre-ordered foil versions of Rune-Scarred Demon and Bloodgift Demon when they were initially spoiled?)

By and large, most of the mages have non-tapping abilities that only cost a small mana investment (and occasionally a sacrifice or discard), allowing you to gain decent utility out of them in the early game while leveraging late-game mana production to really break things open.

Azorius Guildmage is one of the more potent combinations of guild abilities, able to shut down both creatures and activated abilities with ease. Some of the mages don’t pack all that much relevance to Commander (Sorry, Dimir Guildmage), but this one has the ability to single-handedly turn even a multiplayer game in your favor with enough mana to really back it up.

We haven’t seen the rest of the new Return to Ravnica bunch yet, but Azorius Guildmage is still my favorite of the bunch, and the one I’ve personally played the most over the years.

Grade: B+

Worldpurge

This one makes the list because it isn’t actually an Azorius card in any way other than color combination. It’s a big, splashy, game-resetting effect, which means it does fit the bill insofar as Azorius loves effects that seek to stall games out endlessly.

It does give you choices as to how things play out for you post-resolution, but from there it more closely resembles a monored strategy. Red loves to start fresh, eschewing selective card draw in favor of draw-sevens such as Wheel of Fortune or making you pay for card quality over card advantage with cards like Faithless Looting.

From there, we have actual board reset effects like Warp World that feel very similar to Worldpurge, if not a little more random. The only fundamental difference is that Warp World doesn’t put a screeching halt on a long game in the same way that Worldpurge can by resetting things and invalidating most of what has already transpired.

Put another way, Worldfire was banned for a reason.

Anyway, why am I pointing out non-Azorius cards here? I think it is incredibly important to understand the division between Azorius and plain-old white and blue cards. Wrath effects aren’t Azorius simply because they share a color. Neither are blue card-draw effects, nor are counter spells. These types of cards may accent a guild strategy, but that does not make them guild-aligned. To be Azorius (or any guild for that matter) is to be more than the sum of your parts.

As for a grade on Worldpurge? I played this card for a few weeks when I made a Jenara, Asura of War control deck. I stopped after I played it the second time and my life was threatened by the half of the table that didn’t immediately head to the parking lot to slash my tires.

Worldpurge is a fake-out card. It looks big and splashy, but it isn’t fun. Like ever.

Grade: F

Ghostly Prison, Sphere of Safety, Propaganda

The other side of this coin is that monocolor cards can sometimes represent Azorius better than actual guild-branded cards. Azorius promotes a passive prison theme, penalizing players for being aggressive or preventing them from doing so completely to begin with.

Propaganda captures the flavor as well as the mechanic and passes the baton to white with Ghostly Prison. Newcomer Sphere of Safety ties the strategy to the enchantments that white loves so much, raising the bar to a whole new level. In my mind, these cards represent Azorius better than any others.

I’m not really into playing prison-style effects, but I will concede these cards are Azorius through and through, and they see a ton of play. I’ll even admit that I have Sphere of Safety in my green/white enchantress deck as a way to stave off token swarm strategies.

Grade: A

Commander options

With all of this in mind, let’s look at some legendary commander options to see how they stack up against guild standards. Are they Azorius, or are they simply wearing the colors ?

Isperia the Inscrutable

Guild or not? Nope. Crazy, right?

I’ll get beaten up over this one I’m sure, but Azorius doesn’t play games. Azorius lays down the law. With the leadup to Return to Ravnica, we saw Twitter hits that painted a picture of endless senate majority votes in order to do something as little as reveal a spoiler. We saw how much rules and regulations matter in the Azorius insert that came with the Prerelease guild box. Azorius is all about following the letter of the law.

Isperia 1.0 is a sphinx that likes to play guessing games. End of story.

Bruna, Light of Alabaster

Guild or not? Nope once again.

Bruna is undoubtedly white, playing off an ‘enchantments matter’ theme. She’s a big flyer (blue) and she is natively vigilant (white again). However, her ability does nothing to suggest or enable a way to police the board or impose law on a game. I suppose she could be built for it somehow (maybe some muddled confluence of enchantment tutors and targeted bounce to get them back to hand and off Bruna), but if she goes out and finds Azorius auras like Arrest and Oblivion Ring, she’s only shooting herself in the foot by placing them on herself.

She also pokes around in graveyards, and we all know the Azorius don’t stoop that low.

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV

Guild or not? No surprises here. GAAIV is classic Azorius.

The abilities suggest a subtle prison strategy, coupled with a belief that the colors of the guild are right and just. Much in the same way that Propaganda effects are the heart and soul of the guild, Grand Arbiter adds a definitive face to Azorius. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I feel playing (or playing against) a dedicated Grand Arbiter deck is akin to watching paint dry, but that’s neither here nor there …

Ith, High Arcanist

Guild or not? Ith is the original Azorius player from back in the day. His Maze is the gold standard in putting a halt on creature aggression, and he himself takes it up a notch, hitting on the vigilance of white and the passive nature of True Azorius control in his suspend cost. This is the real deal.

I know he’s expensive to cast, but Ith, High Arcanist takes the coveted “Criminally Underplayed Card Of The Article” award.

Tobias Andrion

A notable pre-Azorius example of the rank and file of military structure put in place to ensure peace. Tobias is a great example of Azorius feel as it applies to flavor text.

What Tobias isn’t is playable. End of list.

Isperia, Supreme Judge

And we finally get to the new leader of the Azorius guild. Isperia has really stepped it up, knocking off the guessing games in favor of taking care of business.

I like that. Quite a bit. The Tundra is now sitting on my desk.

This is hybrid Azorius, new-school at its best. There remains the same predilection towards discouraging attacks, but we see an aggressive new side to things as well. Isperia 2.0 is a large-bodied flier with a trademark passive deterrent ability that means this legendary creature doesn’t need to sit idle in order to protect the guild domain. That’s a side of Azorius that wasn’t present before, and it’s the direction that will pull me in and make me take interest in building this color combination.

The balance is a subtle control mixed with strong aggro. Azorius guild colors haven’t brought a strong aggro contender to the Commander tables yet, so this is a wonderful turn of events.

(Author’s Note: Geist of Saint Traft does not count. It brings along an angel friend for a turn, and simultaneously runs face-first into an errant Solemn Simulacrum and drops dead. This is not inspiring me at all.)

Azorius Aggro

I typically don’t like to throw decklists around, but I did want to showcase why I’m excited about Isperia, Supreme Judge. The deck that follows is one being developed by a few players in my shop. It’s designed to really focus on the shift to aggro that Isperia 2.0 brings to the table, while still retaining the Azorius interest in controlling creature movement without resulting to prison stalls or counterspell threats.

It’s not a typical aggro list that leverages a high creature count, but the ones it does include are there for good reason, and the deck wins through the red zone. It also runs a very high number of instants, which I love. This keeps the player in the game nonstop instead of the typical aggro plan that involves playing a creature, attacking, and taking a nap until their next turn comes back around.

It also takes more of an active role in the traditional Azorius control scheme, focusing on running Isperia out and daring opponents to attack, benefiting from the card draw while shutting down damage through Fog effects such as Angelsong and Dawn Charm, or even outright removing the offending creatures from the equation with Wing Shards or Condemn. (Don’t miss the joy of being attacked by multiple creatures, which trigger the Isperia draws needed to exactly fuel Vengeful Dreams to remove them all!)

Wrapping Up

After working my way through this article, I’m starting to come around on Azorius. I admit readily that I still have my doubts. While Return to Ravnica is starting to show some exciting new aggressive guild colors, there’s still body of the old standard that stretches back nearly two decades. I still think it’s far more likely that the guild deck that will most commonly see play will be the grindy prison option instead of new school aggro.

However, Isperia 2.0 goes a long way towards opening up this new angle for Azorius. And I’m all for anything that really helps round out options at the Commander table in ways that weren’t previously apparent.

This might be fun after all …

— Cassidy
www.generaldamagecontrol.com

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