Azorius Ascendant: Control! (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Building on a Budget on July 10, 2006

By Ben Bleiweiss

Welcome back to building on a budget! As you might remember, I started playing around with the U/W theme deck from Dissension a couple of weeks back. I then let you, the reader, decide the direction in which I would take this precon. When the votes were tallied, it was the closest vote I'd ever seen – but the winner, in the end, was U/W Control.

Control it is! Before we start tinkering with the deck, we need a clear idea of what makes a control deck tick. Here are a few key points that I think of when I think control deck.

Card advantage: This is the first tenet of control, in my mind. Control decks are about outmaneuvering your opponent in the long game, and the simplest route to that destination is to have more options than your opponent. How do you get more options than your opponent? By gaining card advantage.

Compulsive Research
Unlike tempo, card advantage is very easy to define. Card advantage is when you end up with more cards than your opponent on any given play. Let me give some examples of what are and aren't card advantage:
  1. Your opponent casts a Hill Giant. You cast Volcanic Hammer on the Hill Giant. There is no card advantage – you spent one card to deal with one card.
  2. Your opponent casts a Goblin Raider, and then casts another Goblin Raider. You cast Pyroclasm, killing them both. You have gained +1 card advantage – you spent one card to kill two of your opponent's cards.
  3. You cast Compulsive Research, discarding an Island. You have gained card advantage. You have spent one card to gain one. (Compulsive Research is a card spent. The card you discarded is a card spent. The three cards you drew were cards gained. Three minus two equals one).
  4. You cast Careful Study, discarding two Islands. You have lost card advantage, as you have spent a card (Careful Study) to draw two cards, and discard two cards. Two cards drawn minus three cards spent (two discarded plus the Study itself) equals minus-one card.
  5. You cast Careful Study, discarding Basking Rootwalla and Violent Eruption. You use the madness ability of Rootwalla to put it into play, and use the madness ability of Violent Eruption to kill four of your opponent's Suntail Hawks. You have gained card advantage. Minus one for the Study, plus two for the two cards drawn, minus one for casting the Violent Eruption, plus four for killing four Suntail Hawks, a wash for the Rootwalla (you still have it as a resource, so it is even money for now). -1 + 2 -1 + 4 = you're up four cards in the end.

U/W is the traditional card advantage color in Magic. This plays itself out through Wrath of God effects (which are usually stilted in your favor), card-drawing (Compulsive Research, Tidings), and change-of-ownership effects (such as Confiscate, which in-and-of-itself isn't card advantage, but your opponent usually has to trade one of their resources to kill the Confiscated permanent, which does create a two-for-one situation).

Board Control: Control decks are known as control decks because they attempt to dictate the pace of the game on both sides of the board. This means that Control goes out of its way to keep its opponent from winning the game. Note that while this might seem intuitive (after all, who wants to let their opponent win the game? Not me!), compare this with an aggro strategy.

If you're running a R/G weenie deck, your main goal is to reduce your opponent from twenty to zero as quickly as possible. You want to use Volcanic Hammer for one of two purposes – to killing potential blocking/defensive creatures, or to deal three damage to your opponent. Now, let's say you're running a R/W control strategy. You might be packing that same Volcanic Hammer, but the main purpose of the Hammer won't be to get your creatures through – it will be to kill opposing creatures so they cannot damage you.

Faith's Fetters
This is an important distinction to make for control – it is focused on staying alive long enough that it can put itself in a position to call all the shots in a game. Board control plays a huge part in this. If you can't slow down or stop what is happening on the board, you will die before you can grab the game by the horns and wrestle it into submission. Board Control can take the form of one-for-one creature kill (Faith's Fetters, Condemn), mass-creature kill (Wrath of God), tapping effects (Minister of Impediments, Puppeteer), mana-denial effects (Hokori, Dust Drinker, Ghostly Prison), change-of-ownership effects (Confiscate, Dream Leash), blocking (Kami of Old Stone, Soulsworn Jury), bounce (Boomerang, Temporal Adept), and countermagic (to keep things from hitting the board – Rewind, Remove Soul).

Board Control ties directly into card advantage. Why? If you end up with five-to-ten more cards than your opponent each game, then you will have five-to-ten more options available to control the game with. If you keep going one-for-one against an aggressive deck, eventually they will have a threat that you can't deal with. If you use card advantage to gain board control (either by outright drawing more cards than your opponent, or by using single spells that deal with multiple of your opponent's spells), you will be in the position to win the game.

The Big Finisher: It was once said that if a control deck is working properly, you can put in any card as the win condition and it won't matter – your opponent will be helpless to do anything. While this isn't completely true (who wants to try to win with Scornful Egotist? Anyone? I deny!), the finisher is the last part of the control deck. Most control decks focus on gaining board control through card advantage, and then dropping the big finisher. Past choices have included Serra Angel (which plays both offense and defense), Morphling (which plays both offense and defense), Meloku (which plays both offe…you get the idea). In short, the big finisher is usually a fatty flier that plays both offense and defense. There are some exceptions (Mahamoti Djinn), but more often than not, the big finisher will enable you to prolong the game defensively in some measure. See also Exalted Angel (lifegain), Keiga (change-of-ownership effect), Yosei (board control effect), Blinding Angel (board control effect), and Niv-Mizzet (creature kill/board control).

With these three principles in mind (card advantage, board control, and the big finisher), let's take a look at the Azorius Ascendant theme deck.

Azorius Ascendant

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There are quite a few cards in this deck that don't fit into the “Card Advantage + Board Control + The Big Finisher = Win” formula (hereby to be known as CA + BC + TBF = Win). This means that we're going to have to gut the theme deck – some cards will stay, but quite a few will go.

Out: 2 Azorius First-Wing, 1 Halcyon Glaze, 2 Mistral Charger, 2 Ocular Halo, 1 Palliation Accord, 1 Sinstriker's Will, 1 Steeling Stance, 1 To Arms!, 1 Zephyr Spirit

Azorius First-Wing and Mistral Charger are out, as they are both aggressive creatures that serve a purpose in an aggressive deck, but not so much in control. Halcyon Glaze has the same fate, especially since it can't block in a vast majority of situations. Steeling Stance gets das boot, as it is also an offensively-oriented card.

Also getting cut are Sinstriker's Will and Ocular Halo. Both can generate two-for-one card disadvantage, if the creature they are enchanted is killed in response to the aura being cast. Yes, Ocular Halo draws cards. However, there are much easier and more efficient ways to draw cards if you're playing Blue, and a creature-aura doesn't fit the bill.

To Arms! gets cut because it doesn't do enough – it is more suited for Limited play, or for a combo deck that wants to untap creatures for some combo effect (such as the Izzet Pinball deck from a few weeks back).

Zephyr Spirit and Palliation Accord are the other cards removed, because they are both really inefficient at what they do. Zephyr Spirit is a 0/6 creature for six mana that must be recast each time it blocks. Why not just play Kami of Old Stone if I want a creature with a big butt? Likewise, Palliation Accord doesn't hit until the fifth turn. Against an aggressive deck, Ghostly Prison would stop much more damage from coming through, simply by stymieing your opponent's mana development or ability to attack.

In: 3 Faith's Fetters, 4 Azorius Herald, 4 Court Hussar, 1 Minister of Impediments

Faith's Fetters plays board control, and has the added boost of giving a nice life cushion to sit on. Court Hussar fits into card advantage, because it draws you a card, plus it can trade with an opposing creature. Azorius Herald is an efficient creature that plays both offense (can't be blocked) and defense (gain four life), and that four life can be the difference between losing and winning. Lastly, I wanted to see how another Minister of Impediments (board control) would play in the deck.

U/W Precon 2.0

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Game 1: Woozy12321 (B/W Aggro)

I get a third turn Minister of Impediments, and follow it with a fourth turn Court Hussar. Woozy doubles down on dirty-dog Vulshok Morningstar, but can't get any creatures going. I start dropping mid-range guys, but they end up getting hit with Faith's Fetters and Pillory of the Sleepless. This makes those creatures perfect fodder for Sky Hussar, and I begin to tap them during my upkeep to draw a card.

After several turns of this, I've gotten half-a-dozen cards ahead of Woozy, and I am able to use two spells a turn to his one. Wakestone Gargoyle and Stoic Ephemera provide the big finish in this game.


Game 2: OmarXCS (R/G Aggro)

This game illustrated the concept of board control perfectly. OmarXCS gets down a first-turn Llanowar Elves, attacks with them to make a second-turn 3/3 Scab-Clan Mauler, and follows them with a third-turn Burning-Tree Shaman.

Azorius_HeraldI drop Azorius Herald (negating his first couple of attacks), cast Faith's Fetters on his Shaman the next turn (negating most of his third attack, plus neutralizing his Shaman), drop Wakestone Gargoyle (preventing his team from attacking), and then drop Tidewater Minion to shut off his offense entirely. A second Herald brings my life above twenty, and the defenders keep the board tied down while my Heralds come in for the win.


Game 3: Franz_Kafka (B/G/W Aggro)

This was a very long, drawn-out game. Let me warn you about control – control decks can be very powerful, but you will have very few quick games. This one in particular took nearly thirty minutes to play.

In short, we kept going back and forth, with him using Mortify, Putrefy, and Moldervine-cloaked creatures to break through. I kept gaining life and card advantage (Faith's Fetters on his Cloaked Civic Wayfinder, anyone?), but was still taking hits every now and then. Four times I was brought down to one life, only to stabilize again through Fetters or Azorius Herald.

Anticlimatically, he drew Golgari Rotwurm and was able to throw his Fettered guys at me to win. It was a long game, and if I hadn't stalled slightly on mana at the beginning, I could have won.


Time for some changes. In these games, I had too many defenders, and I didn't need those in many circumstances.

Out: Paladin of Prahv, Wakestone Gargoyle, 2 Benevolent Ancestor, 3 Minister of Impediments, Plumes of Peace

In: 4 Hinder, 4 Icy Manipulator

U/W Precon 3.0

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Icy Manipulator
Icy Manipulator is much better than Minister of Impediments, even though it comes down a turn later and costs one more mana to activate. It is much harder to kill an artifact than to kill a 1/1 creature, and the Icy can hit lands (denying my opponent mana) and artifacts (if need be). Hinder is added to give me some way to control the spells being cast during a game. All the control in the world won't help me if I die to Golgari Rotwurm (which will be able to hit the board and be activated before I can deal with it) or Blaze (damage to the dome?).

Game 4: Bedlamite (G/W/U Good Stuff)

Belamite's deck is a G/W/U good-stuff deck, meaning that it had a ton of cards that are very useful/above the power curve in those colors, without necessarily having a cohesive strategy for the deck. Good Stuff decks try to win through the sheer power level of their cards, and Bedlamite had Faith's Fetters, Naturalize, Devouring Light, Loxodon Warhammer, and Hunted Wumpus to throw at me.

The drawback with many good stuff decks is that if your opponent can deal with what you throw at them, you will run out of gas before they do, since your deck is geared towards one-on-one superiority. In this game, Icy Manipulator dealt with whichever creatures were equipped with Warhammer, while my Hussars and Heralds play the rest of my offense and defense. Eventually I get Isperia, and use it to get multiple Sky Hussars for the win.


Game 5: Blinding Angel (U/B Mill)

While my particular control build is great at dealing with permanents, it is less-great at dealing with spells. Case in point: Blinding Angel gets quadruple Ribbons of Night, double Psychic Drain, and double Glimpse the Unthinkable. I only have four Hinders in the deck, meaning that I am pretty much at the mercy of any spells he casts. I also cannot kill him quickly enough to be a concern, especially after he's gained sixteen life from the Ribbons. I end up getting decked.


Game 6: T to the G (B/G/U Ninja)

This game was rather frustrating, as I got stuck at three mana, and my two blockers were killed by Putrefies. He then puts Okiba-Gang Shinobi into play, I discard six cards, and then I draw five straight lands.

Folks, when a game like this happens, just shrug it off. Take a break (I went and took a bath – figuratively and literally), and then come back to the game. Sometimes luck plays a factor in Magic, but most of the time the winner of a game is decided by skill. If you get that rare game that is unwinnable due to fate, don't get mad – just realize that it's happened to everyone (literally), and that nobody gets perfect draws every time.


Game 7: Rstar1 (U/G/W Control)

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
He casts Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, and then counters everything I try to cast. I take a few hits, and we both build up mana. Finally, he goes for it – he drops Eight-and-a-Half-Tails and Temporal Adept on the same turn.

Thankfully, I've built up quite a lot of mana at this point (ten to be exact), and I am able to drop Faith's Fetters on both of his creatures! If I hadn't made that play then, I would have lost the game – Eight-and-a-Half-Tails would have made his permanents practically unkillable, Temporal Adept would have started removing all my permanents from the board, and Grand Arbiter Augustin would have prevented me from casting further spells, once I was Adept-locked.

I start building an offense, as his hand is spent. Tidewater Minion and Sky Hussar hit the board and start swinging, though he gets down Meloku. I drop Icy, and he returns three lands to kill my Sky Hussar. This gives me a huge mana advantage on the board, and I am able to drop another Icy, and Hinder his Counterspell. I have two Icy Manipulators and a Tidewater Minion on the board (allowing me to tap down three permanents a turn), and he's down to three lands on the board to my eleven. As I cast Isperia, he concedes.


Game 8: MorphlingBH (R/B Control)

He gets double Bile Urchin, and then follows them with O-Naginata and Ogre Marauder. I drop Court Hussar and Beacon Hawk, and use them to kill his Urchins. His Marauder drops me to nine, but I get a second Court Hussar. This allows me to sacrifice one Hussar to allow the other to block his Marauder, stabilizing the board.

I still have five cards in hand to his two, as my Court Hussars have still provided card advantage even though I had to sacrifice one just to block (for those who would like the math, I drew two cards off the two Hussars, plus killed his Ogre, but lost both Hussars, so I am a card up).

I get Tidewater Minion down, and follow it with two Azorius Heralds, bringing me to a very comfortable fourteen life. Sky Hussar joins the beatings, but he top decks Rakdos Guildmage. Thankfully, I have been holding an Icy Manipulator, and he is stuck at four mana. I start tapping down his one Mountain on his turn, forcing him to tap out during his upkeep to kill my Heralds – which in turn allows me to swing freely with my Sky Hussar and Tidewater Minion. Eventually he is forced to chump block with his Guildmage to stay alive, and I win.


Surprisingly, Tidewater Minion has been an all-star for the deck. It has accelerated my mana (especially with Azorius Chancery), allowed double-activations of Icy Manipulator, kept the ground firmed up against any assault, and played offense towards the end of the game.

Sky Hussar
Sky Hussar has also been a huge boon. Beacon Hawk and Court Hussar may provide a nice early defense, but they are light on the offense. I am always happy to get them on the board early for Sky Hussar, because I will trade doing two damage to my opponent in the early game in exchange for drawing a card. The extra cards I draw when I am not under pressure will allow me that much more leeway later in the game when I need to start getting my heavy hitters on the board.

I do find that I am a little short on the big finisher, as Tidewater Minion, Isperia and Sky Hussar are my only large guys, and the Minion is not very mana efficient as an attacker. Iseperia has been great, since it can get more blockers if it hits, and I've already spoken the praises of Sky Hussar and Tidewater Minion.

I decide to add a couple of large creatures that play both offense and defense – Tidespout Tyrant and Myojin of Cleansing Fire. I don't have a Wrath of God effect in the deck yet, so Myojin fits three roles – card advantage, board control and the big finisher. Tidespout Tyrant fits two roles – board control and the big finisher, plus it can be tutored by Isperia.

Lastly, lifegain has been good for this deck so far, since it gives me more room to work with against an early assault. Beacon Hawk and Tidewater Minion both have proved to be strong in this deck, so I add a few Ghost-Lit Redeemers. These guys can play nice with Sky Hussar on the early game, buy time for me to establish a board position, and work really well with untap effects.

Out: Plumes of Peace, 2 Stoic Ephemera, 3 Soulsworn Jury, 2 Plains

In: 1 Myojin of Cleansing Fire, 1 Tidespout Tyrant, 3 Ghost-Lit Redeemer, 1 Sky Hussar, 2 Azorius Chancery

U/W Precon 4.0

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Who would have though that when I started this deck, I would end up with a control engine based around Beacon Hawk and Tidewater Minion? That's what I love about Magic – through tinkering and playing, my destination thus far has taken me to a deck based around a 1/1 flyer, a 4/4 defender, and a 4/3 creature that works best when I don't cast it!

Any thoughts/suggestions/improvements for the deck? Sound off in the forums, and then tune in next week as I finish evolving the U/W Azorius Ascendant deck on the control tip.

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