With the newest set of bannings, Pioneer has eliminated the bulk of the 2019 power level problems from the format. At the moment, Azorius Control is among the top choices and was arguably among the best decks even with Oko and Nexus legal, making it the biggest winner. While oppressive control decks can exist, they’re being few and far between compared to the number of obscene ramp, tempo, or combo decks that have been struck by recent bans. So I’d be surprised if the format ended up in a bad place immediately, and the DCI seems to agree, based on the fact that they went on vacation before taking a fresh look in (what will likely be) mid-January.
So that gives us roughly a month or more of this format at least—What’s good? Well as stated above, jamming Azorius Control is a great option and likely the default for grinders in the short-term. When you look at the format, you see a whole lot of power cards and card filtering in these decks compared to the rest of the field.
1 Plains 6 Island 2 Castle Ardenvale 2 Field of Ruin 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Irrigated Farmland 3 Mystic Sanctuary 2 Brazen Borrower/Petty Theft 4 Absorb 3 Azorius Charm 1 Blessed Alliance 1 Detention Sphere 3 Dig Through Time 1 Dovin's Veto 4 Hieroglyphic Illumination 1 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 4 Supreme Verdict 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 4 Teferi, Time Raveler 3 Censor Sideboard 4 Aether Gust 3 Dovin's Veto 2 Lyra Dawnbringer 2 Brazen Borrower/Petty Theft 2 Mystical Dispute 2 Rest in Peace
While some people prefer the AFK win condition of Teferi tucks or Castle activations with no main-deck creatures, I find Brazen Borrower good enough at pressuring planeswalkers and as a win con. Yes it turns on removal, but frankly you rarely lose anything when a Brazen gets killed down the line.
I imagine an immediate response would be Azorius Tempo or Bant Tempo decks that take advantage of Teferi, Time Raveler. Cards like Selfless Spirit and History of Benalia line up reasonably well against Supreme Verdict.
8 Island 5 Plains 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Hallowed Fountain 1 Port Town 2 Shefet Dunes 4 Mausoleum Wanderer 4 Rattlechains 4 Selfless Spirit 4 Supreme Phantom 4 Spell Queller 3 Nebelgast Herald 2 Deputy of Detention 2 Empyrean Eagle 3 Brazen Borrower/Petty Theft 2 Archangel Avacyn/Avacyn, the Purifier 4 Teferi, Time Raveler Sideboard 2 Bygone Bishop 2 Declaration in Stone 2 Disdainful Stroke 2 Dovin's Veto 2 Eidolon of Rhetoric 2 Reflector Mage 2 Settle the Wreckage 1 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
This is a copy of Spirits that Nathanael Perigo used to take down a PTQ at OKC not that long ago. While Supreme Verdict may be the go-to for Azorius Control, it sure looks embarrassing against a deck with both Selfless Spirit and Spell Queller. If the top of the ladder ends up being largely slower strategies, one would expect more of these types of Queller decks to pop up in the interim.
For those with combo intentions, Lotus Field seems like just a hop skip and a jump away from a tier 1 strategy. Dig Through Time and Fae of Wishes give the deck enough ways to find its key pieces to close out games while maintaining a respectable goldfish turn. What it really needs to do is get about half a turn faster or steamline to pack a little more protection in the shell. Here’s a copy from a recent league.
Lotus Field Combo
1 Forest 1 Island 1 Blast Zone 4 Botanical Sanctum 2 Breeding Pool 4 Lotus Field 1 Lumbering Falls 3 Temple of Mystery 4 Thespian's Stage 3 Yavimaya Coast 4 Arboreal Grazer 4 Vizier of Tumbling Sands 1 Emrakul, the Promised End 4 Fae of Wishes/Granted 4 Dig Through Time 3 Growth Spiral 4 Hidden Strings 1 Omniscience 4 Pore Over the Pages 3 Strategic Planning 4 Sylvan Scrying Sideboard 2 Anger of the Gods 1 Chandra, Awakened Inferno 1 Enter the Infinite 1 Fog 1 Hour of Revelation 1 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries 1 Lost Legacy 1 Omniscience 1 Return to Nature 1 Supreme Verdict 2 Thought Distortion 1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Right now the only reason this deck has a chance against aggression is that both Grazer and Fae of Wishes make solid blockers. It usually takes sacrificing a turn from your goldfish to clear one out of the way. Decks that can clock and interact on the stack are not exactly friendly toward you though, nor are Ghor-Clan Rampager or Embercleave.
On the fairer side of the coin, all the playable Adventure cards get bumped in power. As the format slows down and becomes less about combos, Oko, and powering out other planeswalkers, the slower creature-centric value cards pick up. Both Bonecrusher Giant and Brazen Borrower should see an uptick as cheap interaction pieces that pressure Teferi, Vivien, and Nissa nicely. As the chances of facing a turn 3/4 Ugin drop, the less reliant you are on doing something absurd to get past the colorless brickwall. Gruul decks are one of the obvious starting points for the new format as they’ve lost nothing, have a variety of impact threats against UW, and a solid clock against everyone else.
Here’s an example list of both an 8-Rabble CoCo version and one without Collected Company.
8-Rabble CoCo Gruul
4 Game Trail 4 Stomping Ground 1 Mana Confluence 8 Forest 5 Mountain 4 Elvish Mystic 4 Llanowar Elves 4 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp 4 Legion Warboss 4 Goblin Rabblemaster 4 Lovestruck Beast/Heart's Desire - Showcase 4 Gruul Spellbreaker 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager 3 Domri Rade 3 Collected Company Sideboard 3 Reclamation Sage 2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance 1 Mutavault 3 Glorybringer 3 Lava Coil 2 Forge Devil 1 Lovestruck Beast/Heart's Desire
6 Rabble Gruul
4 Game Trail 4 Stomping Ground 2 Mana Confluence 8 Forest 5 Mountain 4 Elvish Mystic 4 Llanowar Elves 2 Scavenging Ooze 2 Legion Warboss 4 Goblin Rabblemaster 4 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp 4 Lovestruck Beast/Heart's Desire - Showcase 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager 2 Glorybringer 4 Domri Rade 3 Embercleave Sideboard 1 Mutavault 2 Reclamation Sage 2 Forge Devil 2 Domri’s Ambush 3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance 2 Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner 3 Shifting Ceratops
Assuming aggro and Azorius start outperforming the usual ramp strategies, I think more and more people are going to lean into Domri Rade and potentially Collected Company as an answer to heavy-removal decks. All of your 3-drops present a threatening clock and Embercleave or Ghor-Clan Rampager can easily just end the game. The mirrors are actually a bit awkward for anyone on the draw, as you can be punished hard by Domri Rade fight or Embercleave dismantling any reasonable blocks.
Going bigger has the advantage of giving you better cards for the mirrors and other green midrange decks. Questing Beast and Glorybringer both have their advantages and can pressure planeswalkers hidden behind a Lovestruck Beast or similar blocker. One of the drawbacks of playing heavy red is being unable to cast Vivien, which is looking like a very good backup plan for creature mirrors.
Against Azorius Control, going in on Domri along with additional card draw in the sideboard is good planning. This isn’t like the draw-go decks of formats past where they shut the door on you, you can be pretty far behind and still claw back into the game because of how weak the win conditions are. Besides that, you have a ton of card/creature advantage engines on the planeswalker front including multiple Domri, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Kiora, and Xenagos. If you prefer non-PW options, Lifecrafter’s Bestiary and Experimental Frenzy both perform well.
If you prefer going the route with Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, I’m hard pressed to argue against it. They remain two of the best spells in the format and Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is very powerful in a proactive strategy. You only need to draw the game out for an extra turn or two and Sorin makes a huge impact.
I’ve talked about Ensoul before, but sadly just constantly was invalidated by decks doing more powerful things. Despite this, I still really enjoyed playing it, even though it was always tier 2-3. Will it remain in that position now that Supreme Verdict rules the roost? It does make cards like The Royal Scions a lot more appealing, and the same can be said of adding more lands to fit in the full set of Mutavault. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether or not a minor upgrade in matchups will allow it to shine.
Moving forward, unless you plan on sticking with eight mana Elves or the usual 8 black one-drop spells, Azorius looks like the place to be. Whether that be the various control elements with Dig Through Time or something more proactive with Spell Queller, these decks now have many of the strongest individual cards left in Pioneer now that many of the mistakes of Throne of Eldraine are out of the format. This is definitely the clearest the format has opened up toward lower-powered strategies since its inception, so if any of your brews were just getting overpowered, now might be the time to dust them off and see what they can do.