When Pioneer was first announced, I was extremely excited to cast Dig Through Time off of Torrential Gearhulk. I almost immediately started working on an Esper Control deck because I knew that Thoughtseize and Fatal Push were going to be among the most powerful one-two punches in the format. As I started testing and re-configuring the deck, I quickly came to the conclusion that Control wasn’t a viable archetype in Pioneer. The format was just too fast. The Mono Green Devotion deck hit too hard and too fast, the Mono Black Aggro deck was too recursive, and it was daunting to attempt to control such an explosive format. So for the time being, I shelved the idea of Control being viable in Pioneer. However, as the banned and restricted updates started to roll in week after week, the viability of Control seemed to become more likely. Today, I’m here to tell you that it’s finally time for Blue-White Control to shine in Pioneer.
A lot has changed since the inception of the format. We see fewer of the recursive creatures from the Mono Black Aggro menace. We also don’t have to keep up with the breakneck acceleration of the Mono-Green Devotion deck. Veil of Summer being banned has helped immensely to defeat the Nexus Deck and, most recently, that deck has faced its own debilitating ban.
Much of the format pre-ban was Simic Food, Simic Aggro, Simic Nexus, Mono White Humans, and Mono Black Vampires. In both Simic Food and Simic Aggro, you could keep Oko, Theif of Crowns off the battlefield, you have Supreme Verdict to clean up the creatures. As for Nexus, it was a bit of a tricky matchup, but if you landed an early Teferi, Time Raveler, you were heavily favored.
But we’re here to focus on the future of Pioneer, not the past. If we look at the format as a whole, Control looks to be in a good spot. However, it’ll be interesting to see how the bannings will shake up the format. I believe that more midrange decks could emerge as some heavy hitters. The GR Embercleave deck looks stronger than ever and can pose a serious threat for Control. Mono White Humans can be a bit of a tough match-up because if your opponent gets you on the back foot, they can slam the door shut with a Kytheon, Hero of Akros that flips into Gideon, Battle Forged. Additionally, Brave the Elements is excellent at shutting down our expensive spot removal spells. The Vampires Deck is one that relies on their creatures to do a lot of the heavy lifting but also attacks us from the Planeswalker angle. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord can definitely be problematic for Control. Supreme Verdict is crucial in this matchup and is really the MVP of the deck in general. Lastly, the Twiddle Storm deck could see more play now that Nexus (the former best combo deck) has been ousted from the meta.
The bevy of haymaker spells that make up our card advantage is what helps us dominate the late game in Pioneer, which is key when determining how powerful Control is in any given format.
I’ll be breaking down our options in each card category so we know what we’re working with and how each card can help fight against different archetypes. Let’s take a look at our tools to play with, then I’ll give a recommended amount of copies you should be playing after each card.
Planeswalkers are not only a strong card advantage engine but they’re also our way to end the game. Any Control deck that wants to have success in Pioneer needs to have a calculated and robust suite of Planeswalkers in their 75. Let’s take a look at the viable options in our arsenal.
Teferi, Time Raveler
First and foremost, little Teferi is the linchpin of the Planeswalker suite. It is the best one and the only Planeswalker you should just auto-include in each list you play. Its passive is stellar vs. the Twiddle Storm decks because it shuts down their counterspells which makes it a lot easier to just counter their win con. For reference, this is usually either Omniscience to cast Granted). Then, they’ll often grab Enter the Infinite and cast a second Granted, grabbing Jace,Wielder of Mysteries and then win the game with their deck in their hand. The other way is with Ral, Storms Conduit and Explosion.
Teferi makes it possible to tag any of your opponent’s “I win” cards worry-free. Against opposing Control decks, it turns off their counterspells and also makes them cast all of their haymaker draw spells at Sorcery speed. On its surface, it doesn’t look great against Aggro or Creature based decks, but always over performs in those matchups. Its ability to cast instant speed Supreme Verdict is unmatched by anything else we have in our removal arsenal. If you land a Verdict on their turn, it always feels like you can’t lose. Simply put, if you’re playing this archetype, you’re playing this card.
Recommended Copies: 3-4
Narset, Parter of Veils
Much like Teferi, Time Raveler, this card is extremely good in the mirror and helps us grind vs. the food decks. Its passive can make Champion of Dusk and opposing Sphinx’s Revelation’s look like a joke. It’s also great at bridging the gap from the mid- to the late-game and help us find our one-ofs more consistently. It’s also great against Twiddle because of how many cards they want to draw when comboing.
However, Narset does lack the ability to interact with the board, so she’s quite a liability in the Embercleave, Mono-White, Vampires, and other Aggro matchups. Look to take her out when playing against small aggressive creatures.
Ultimately, Narset is definitely a card you want in your deck, unless your meta is extremely aggressive.
Recommended Copies: 1-2
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Big Teferi is the definition of a haymaking win condition but this big man is also so much more than that. He can deal with opposing Planeswalkers as well as creatures and other thorn-in-the-side permanents with his -3 ability. He’s one of just a few ways to climb back into the game if we fall behind early. It goes without saying that he can also slam the door shut when we’re ahead. Be warned though, he is five mana, not three, and you should consider this when building your deck. Your mana curve is extremely important in constructing a Control deck. He’s absolutely an automatic inclusion in any Azorius Control list in Pioneer.
Recommended Amount: 2-3
Jace, Architect of Thought
Jace is similar to Teferi, Hero of Dominari in that he can help bring us back from the brink of defeat. His pseudo-Fact or Fiction is much better than Teferi’s plus in terms of sheer card advantage but, of course, ticking down to do so leaves him rather vulnerable to attackers. Looking at three cards and potentially getting two solid cards can often put you in a position where you have a death grip on the game. His plus is solid at getting us to the late game against Embercleave, Humans and Vampires decks. It can be a liability if they get off to a blazing start. I have had opponents regularly miscounting their damage because of his +1. Additionally he’s good in the mirror. Dancing between plusing and minusing can be very effective and can often win the game against the mirror if unchecked. Overall, Jace is a balanced source of card advantage and helps in our aggro matchups as well. This makes him an extremely unique tool for almost every matchup. I feel that he’s somewhat overshadowed by the other Planeswalkers Azorious has access to but he’s definitely worth the include no matter what your meta looks like.
Recommended Amount: 1-2
Elspeth, Suns Champion
Elspeth is a card that has been gaining popularity in Azorius because of all of the creature decks that attack on the ground. If the format turns into a Midrange grind fest, she’s going to be an excellent addition in those matchups. She is definitely our best Planeswalker to stem the bleeding vs. an onslaught of creatures. One misconception I always hear about her is that she is not that good vs. aggro decks. I believe she is a must-include if you’re expecting aggro decks. Keep in mind our game plan against them is always to Verdict on turn four. If you follow that up with an Elspeth, you’ll be in the driver’s seat to an easy win. She is expensive, yes, but she typically slams the door when she enters the battlefield. For that, I would definitely include her in any Azorious list, but like Hero of Dominaria, you have to take curve into consideration.
Recommended Copies: 0-1
A control deck in any format is only as good as its card advantage spells. In Pioneer, we have access to some devastatingly good ones and some that are even more powerful in this context than in older formats based on the overall lower power level in Pioneer.
Good ol’ Opt. Originally printed way back in Invasion, this card has been Scrying and drawing one for a long time now. It’s a staple in Modern Control decks and it absolutely makes the cut here. However, if you play Censor, you could and should consider playing less than the full playset of Opts. With that in mind, it’s the gold standard for cantrips for Azorius Control in Pioneer.
Recommended Amount: 0-4 (Less if you’re playing Censor)
This card has proven its worth to me over and over again. Timewalking your opponent is an excellent way to get us from the early game all the way to the late game. Once you’re in the late game, Cycling is always a good tool to help you find your win conditions. If you ever get in a pinch early where you need a Verdict, you can cycle it to attempt to find one. The hidden third mode (Lifelink) of this card can definitely come up in sideboard games or if you’re playing Torrential Gearhulk or Brazen Borrower main. This is an extremely flexible card that we should play.
Recommended Amount: 2-4
This is a card that saw fringe play in Modern, but once Jace, the Mind Sculptor got unbanned, it was pushed out of the format. In Pioneer, however, it is an excellent tool for Control. Whether it’s gaining 3-5 life against the aggro decks or drawing 6-10 cards against the mirror, this is definitely a card you want to access. Because of Narset’s presence in the format, I wouldn’t go crazy on these in the main as an opposing Parter of Veils can render your Revelation nearly useless. Again, the name of the game when building your Control deck is curve consideration.
Recommended Amount: 1-2
Dig Through Time
Remember how I said we had access to some devastating card advantage spells? Enter: Dig Through Time. Whether you’re casting it with Delve 6, paying its full cost, or casting it for free with Torrential Gearhulk, this card is one of the main reasons to play Azorius Control in Pioneer. It is, pound for pound, the most powerful card we can access. Though this card may eventually get banned, it’s certainly not on the list yet. Until then, we are absolutely playing it, no questions asked.
Recommended Amount: 2-3
What would a control deck be without the permission spells? Pioneer may not have access to all the hits that Modern does (Force of Negation, Spell Snare, and Logic Knot) but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some powerful cards at our disposal. The power level in Pioneer is much lower compared to Modern so we don’t necessarily need cards like Force and Knot. Though I’d love to see them both in the format, we will adapt and work with what we have.
I said on my podcast, The Control Freak, that I believed Absorb was the best option for a hard counter at the inception of the format. The three life matters…a lot. I still firmly believe that it’s the best three mana counter in the format and that cards like Disallow are a trap, because nine times out of ten, it’s just Cancel. Ten times out of ten, Absorb gains you three life (unless, of course, there’s a Skullcrack hiding in your opponent’s hand).
Recommended Amount- 3-4
Mystical Dispute & Spell Pierce
Main deck? Potentially, yes. Both of these cards are very good option because a lot of the decks in the meta right now are trying to run you up the curve and resolve high impact spells each turn. The main difference between Dispute and Pierce is that Pierce is always one mana. Though Dispute has a higher upside, Spell Pierce is a very clean option if you’re not expecting aggressive creature decks. As for Dispute, it‘s at its worst when you’re casting it as a three-mana Mana Leak but when it’s at its best, it’s an excellent tool against a majority of the metagame. If your metagame is heavy Blue, I believe Dispute should be considered as a legitimate main deck option. Also, if your meta isn’t heavy Aggro, you should consider Pierce main.
Recommended Amount: 0-2
Censor and/or Syncopate
It’s not exclusively an either/or discussion. I could imagine a scenario where you’d want both in the same list, but since Censor fills a similar role as Syncopate, I don’t think I would play four of each. Both are good against decks that want to run you up the curve and tap out to present a threat every turn.
Both Censor and Syncopate play their roles well and deserve a spot at the Azorius table. It all comes down to whether or not you value the Cycle on Censor or the late game potential of Syncopate. If Pioneer ever gets to a spot where graveyards matter a lot, I would side with Syncopate without consideration because the exile clause is just too potent in that context.
Recommended Amount: 1-3 (of each)
I will be painfully honest here. The spot removal for Azorius is a joke. I’d really like to see Wizards print a one-mana white removal spell that isn’t an enchantment. A lot of our spot removal is enchantment-based and we are extremely vulnerable to Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy, and spells like them. Until then, we’ll need to work with what we have. Currently, we have to lean heavily on Supreme Verdict as a crutch. Without it, the deck pretty much can’t exist, however, there are some cards that are playable other than Verdict. We have to diversify our removal to fill in the holes of our game.
Detention Sphere is one of the cleanest and most efficient answers to problem cards in our arsenal. Whether it’s hitting a Planeswalker, tagging multiple creatures, or getting a pesky Pithing Needle, Detention Sphere is absolutely a must. Yes, it’s clunky, costly, and can’t (awkwardly) hit opposing Detention Spheres in the mirror but it’s still our best catch-all spot removal spell.
Recommended Amount: 1-2
Seal Away is the closest thing to a Path to Exile effect in Pioneer. It’s not pretty and it’s not particularly good, but at the end of the day, it gets the job done. Two mana is just too expensive for this effect. We can’t play too many copies of Seal Away. Instant speed is the saving grace on this card but its cost and the fact that it can only target tapped creatures limits its use effectiveness too much to rely on.
Recommended Amount: 0-2
I’ve written about this card already in the card advantage section but I’ll speak to its effectiveness as removal here. It plays well with the curve when a lot of our other removal spells don’t. Though it has similar pre-requisites to Seal Away, its ability to be cycled or provide some extra life make it well worthwhile. Let these fly early and often to cantrip against Control. Pick your spots against creature decks and remember to prioritize the high value targets. Don’t be afraid to tag smaller creatures to time walk them. Buy time in the early game if you’re under a lot of pressure.
Recommended Amount: 3-4
This isn’t quite Pioneer’s version of Timely Reinforcements, but it definitely fills a similar role. If you ever get to Escalate it (typically, gain 4 and your opponent sacrifices an attacker), the advatage it provides can be game-changing. This card is no joke when it comes to getting you to the midgame. When you cast it to deal with a threat and follow that up with Teferi, Time Raveler on an open board, you’ll understand how powerful this little edict truly is.
Recommended Amount: 1-2
Much like Seal Away, this card’s saving grace is its Flash. An over-costed Detention Sphere is still good enough in the context of Pioneer’s threats. Being able to hit any permanent type other than a land is necessary for this card. It’s solid and we’ll be happy to play a few. Be careful against the aggro decks, though. We definitely cut them in those matchups.
Recommended Amount: 1-3
Although the Mono Black Aggro menace has been stifled by the banning of Smuggler’s Copter, I still believe there’s an argument to play Last Breath. It’s a powerful early game piece of interaction, but only if the meta is heavy on GR Cleave, Mono White Humans or Mono Red Aggro.
Recommender Amount: 0-2 (If the meta is favorable)
This card is one of the most important cards in any Azorius Control’s 75. It’s the way we clear the path for our Planeswalkers. It’s imperative against the Aggro decks as well as the Midrange decks. Simply put, if you’re playing Control, you’re playing four copies of this card. Azorius Control decks are the police of the format and this is our greatest weapon in keeping Pioneer in check.
Recommended Copies: 4. Always play 4.
Creatures can serve a very important role in Control decks. Whether it’s a way to win the game, a way to disrupt an opponent, or a way to tutor up silver bullets out of the sideboard, creatures are very versatile in Pioneer Azorius Control. Though I don’t think they are necessary for this style of deck, they’re certainly an option if you feel like having a way to clock your opponent and win the game faster (if you’re into that sort of thing).
“Fat-caster Mage” finally has a home where we can utilize him to his full potential. From day one of Pioneer, I dreamed of casting Dig Through Times off of Gearhulk. Trust me when I say it feels as good as it sounds. The only true downside of playing the big blue robot is the same as the rest of the creatures on this list in that it takes up spots for more potential Planeswalkers and turns on your opponent’s main deck removal. But if your into attacking your opponent for five every turn after you’ve gotten insane value it’s an excellent option.
Recommended Amount: 0-2
Fae of Wishes
I played a list with two Fae of Wishes and it was solid. Wishing for situational cards is inherently powerful. The creature side of Fae can also be good at slowing down the aggro decks. Four toughness and Flying is extremely relevant. Getting to bounce it in the late game and then wish for a win con is also something I’m also interested in. If you pair it with everyone’s forgotten dragon twin Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, you can end the game on the spot in a lot of scenarios. Overall, this is a versatile option if you’re willing to commit some sideboard slots for a wish package.
Recommended Amount: 0-2
The final, and probably most impactful creature in our arsenal, is definitely a card that we should be considering. This little thieving sprite definitely flew under the radar when it was released. Now it’s proving its worth every time I play with it. Having the versatility to bounce problematic Planeswalkers is a great reason to sleeve this card up in Control. Its major downside is that it can’t block creatures without flying. It comes up from time to time but isn’t enough of a downside to make me not want to play it.
Recommended Amount: 0-2
Although our manabase is fairly clean you do have to be careful of how many lands you play that are either colorless or enter the battlefield tapped. The lack of fetches in Pioneer make for some elegant and robust manabases. In Azorius Control we absolutely need our lands to enter untapped so that we can cast Supreme Verdict on time every time. When it comes to Control manabases in Pioneer, I believe simplicity is almost always better than utility.
If you’re interested in how the math works out for Pioneer manabases (with a specific focus on casting turn four Supreme Verdict), check out Darrel Feltner’s Pioneer Manabase article.
Field of Ruin, Geier Reach Sanitarium, and Blast Zone
I’m putting these three together because they’re probably the only three colorless lands we should consider playing. Field is excellent against Nykthos decks and opposing Control decks. As for Sanitarium, it can lock your opponent out of the game while Narset is in play. Activate this in their draw step with her on the Battlefield and watch your opponent slowly lose their sanity. It’s actually quite poetic and flavorful. Blast Zone is a good include if you’re light on things like Detention Sphere and Cast Out. Otherwise it’s probably safer to run more Fields and Sanitariums in my opinion. We shouldn’t be playing more than two of each of these in Control.
Recommended Amount: 0-2 (combined)
Castle Ardenvale and Castle Vantress
The castles are close to being playable in Modern but shine in Pioneer. Ardenvale is excellent at both protecting yourself and your Planeswalkers midgame and turning the corner while shutting the door in the lategame. As for Vantress, it’s incredible at finding cards in the lategame. I suggest playing a mix of the two based on your meta. Lean towards Advendale if its Aggro-heavy and Vantress if its Midrange or Control-heavy.
Recommended Amount: 2-3 (combined)
Hallowed Fountain and Glacial Fortress
These two are undoubtedly the best dual lands we have access to in Pioneer. I believe we should always be playing four of both of these because we need our lands to enter untapped and these two provide the best way to achieve that consistently. I can’t stress how important casting Verdict on time is.
Recommended Amount: 4 (each)
Here’s my current configuration of Azorius Control post-Oko/Nexus ban:
Alex Blackard’s UW Control [12/2019]
3 Azorius Charm
4 Supreme Verdict
2 Dig Through Time
1 Sphinx’s Revelation
2 Blessed Alliance
1 Seal Away
2 Cast Out
2 Detention Sphere
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Field of Ruin
1 Castle Ardvendale
2 Castle Vantress
1 Blast Zone
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Dovin’s Veto
2 Aether Gust
2 Lyra Dawnbringer
2 Nyx-Fleece Ram
2 Mystical Dispute
1 Pithing Needle
1 Settle the Wreckage
2 Rest In Peace
Overall, I believe that Control is extremely well-positioned in Pioneer right now. The bans have left us in a great spot as I believe they could influence an uptick in more fair midrange decks. Control is a deck that can grind with the Midrange decks and has just enough disruption to make the Aggro decks stumble enough to allow you to stabilize and take over. It’s also one of the most flexible decks in the format and you can tune it to be viable in any metagame. If the Mono Green ramp deck takes off, though, Control could take a hit. As their lategame is just as good, if not better, than ours. World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger are pretty miserable to play against. Just make sure to consider your curve when building your deck and don’t be afraid to try new cards if you believe the metagame if favorable. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to adapt.
If you have any questions or just want to talk more about magic reach out to me on Twitter. (@LessAlex)