Controlling Standard

Gain the upper hand in MTG's Standard format with our comprehensive strategies and tips. Learn how to control the battlefield and outsmart your opponents.

Welcome Magic aficionados!

With the arrival of Murders at Karlov Manor just a couple of short weeks ago, we’ve been treated to a plethora of new toys to tinker with in the Standard format, which has many players brewing up an assortment of spicy decks.

As the Standard Regional Championship Qualifier season trundles onward, it continues to evolve, first with the sudden rise of low-curve aggressive decks built to go under the ubiquitous late-game Domain Ramp deck, and then with the reemergence of midrange decks in order to combat both aggro and ramp. However, one archetype which has been notably absent from the metagame for quite a long time is draw-go control. There is a myriad of reasons for this, and while one new set can’t possibly provide responses to all of them, Murders at Karlov Manor did give control players a few excellent new tools to work with. Will that be enough to make control a tier 1 archetype in Standard again? Let’s jump in and find out!

No More Lies.

Magic the Gathering Card - No more lies - MTG Circle

Forcing opponents to hold back their spells a whole extra turn in order to avoid being countered when compared to something like Make Disappear is an incredible upgrade, as buying additional time is exactly what the control deck is trying to do from the early to mid-game. This single card is the main reason Azorius Control even has a chance to become a competitive archetype in Standard going forward. Forcing an opponent to wait a whole extra turn before slamming their powerful two or three-mana threats creates a large amount of breathing room for the control deck, letting it get to four mana with a (hopefully) clear board in order to leave up the potent Memory Deluge/The Wandering Emperor turn. Two mana is the sweet spot for a counterspell that forced an opponent to pay three more for their spells, and goes a very long way toward shoring up the early game. The exile effect is also a welcome bonus, but is very much just the icing on the cake. While Make Disappear may still see fringe play in some lists as a fifth two-mana counterspell, No More Lies is the truth, and the full four copies should be played in every Azorius Control list.


Magic the Gathering Card - Deduce - MTG Circle

A critical mass of card draw is critical in a control shell, since you need to constantly be finding additional answers to your opponents threats, until you’re able to run them out of gas and stabilize. While the incredible Memory Deluge is the spell that forms the foundation of the control deck’s card advantage engine, one card draw spell in the deck is simply not enough to keep the answers flowing, especially in the very powerful Standard meta game. Previously, control pilots were running Quick Study, as it was instant speed, allowing one to leave up both countermagic and card draw on the opponent’s turn. However, the main issue was its three-mana casting cost, as the counterspells in the deck only cost two, which meant that if you countered a spell with Make Disappear or Negate and had three lands up you were ‘wasting’ a mana every time. Ideally, one would be able to leave up a counterspell anda card draw spell on two mana, like we see in the four-mana slot, with Memory Deluge and The Wandering Emperor playing so beautifully together since they're the same casting cost, allowing the pilot to leave up and cast either one on the opponent’s turn without ‘wasting’ any mana.

Deduce costingonly two mana means it overlaps perfectly with No More Lies, allowing the pilot to draw a card or counter a spell on the opponent’s turn with no mana wasted. Technically, one is paying four mana to draw two cards with Deduce after cracking its clue token, but because one can break that up into two payments of two mana over two turns, it slots much more cleanly into the control deck’s mana curve. The clue token also happens to fuel the new finisher of choice in the deck from Murders at Karlov Manor.

After locking in the upgrades to the early card draw and countermagic facets of the deck, its time to address one of the biggest weaknesses of the control decks in Standard: the finisher, or lack thereof. The problem one encounters when trying to grind out games with a control deck in Standard, is that there is no ideal way to suddenly switch gears after stabilizing in order to end the game quickly and reliably before the opponent can draw into more action and turn things around. Sure, there are plenty of big blue or white dorks one can play, from Hullbreaker Horror to Sanctuary Warden or The Eternal Wanderer, but none of these are resilient enough to survive against most of the top decks. Cheap, black removal spells like Go for the Throat and Bitter Triumph can embarrass Hullbreaker, while exile-based removal like Leyline Binding and Sunfall make Sanctuary Warden look silly. Even a planeswalker like The Eternal Wanderer can be dealt with easily and the token creatures it produces are too low-impact late in the game. While a potent land like Mirrex is a resilient way to end the game, it’s a bit on the slow side, and there are plenty of decks running Field of Ruin in Standard these days, making it less reliable than usual. But, lo! Fear not, for there is yet hope!

Ezrim, Agency Chief.

Magic the Gathering Card - Ezrim, Agency Chief - MTG Circle

A large, 5/5 flyer for five mana that immediately gets value by creating two clues, is also resilient since it can give itself hexproof, can’t be raced effectively since it can gain lifelink, and does double duty on attacks and blocks because it can gain vigilance? Deal! The only caveat here, of course, is that one needs a way of producing more than just two artifacts, in order to fuel the beast. This is where Deduce can really come in clutch, as one doesn’t always need to immediately crack the clue token that the card draw spell produces. Often it’s correct to leave the token in play until one needs to find something immediately, like another land drop or a sweeper, etc. This means that Ezrim often comes down with enough fuel to power him across the finish line. Mirrex tokens are also artifacts, and Restless Anchorage creates map tokens, giving the Azorius pilot several ways to continue to power up the archon detective. Playing especially carefully with Ezrim, Agency chief is crucial, as he will absolutely take over the game if one can untap with him. NEVER play him without the ability to pay mana and sacrifice two, or at bare minimum, one token. He can still be dealt with by almost any removal spell, and can be countered, but the upside on him is very high. My current list has just one Ezrim, though its possible the deck wants a second.

The final, excellent piece of the control puzzle that the new set provided us with is the surveil land, Meticulous Archive. Not only does it provide both of the colors of mana that the deck requires, but the surveil 1 ability when the land entes the battlefield is extremely potent in a deck that’s trying to find specific ways to interact, from countermagic or sweepers, to lands or a finisher when the time is right. It raises the consistency of the deck by a significant margin, and it’s effect on the games is hard to overstate. Playing four copies is almost certainly correct.

Here is the list that I’m currently testing, and I’ve been fairly happy with:

Total Cards:

Some things to watch for while playing this deck:

  • Temporary Lockdown, while one of your best sweepers against the early aggressive decks, can also hit your own clue tokens, so make sure you time things so that you don’t have any clues lying around when you pull the trigger on the Lockdown.
  • Ezrim, for all his resilience, can still die to sweepers like Sunfall, so make sure you don’t drop him into play until you’re sure your opponent has used/discarded their sweepers, or you have countermagic up to interact. Further to this, try and keep a Mirrex or samurai token around to allow Ezrim to dodge sacrifice effects.
  • Disruption Protocol may seem strange, but it plays nicely with the clue tokens, map tokens and/or Mirrex tokens one may have. Be sure to plan your turns accordingly by remembering that Disruption Protocol is effectively a two-mana, hard counterspell, in many situations, which can be VERY powerful.
  • Rely on your sweepers to deal with creatures if at all possible, and save your March of Otherworldly Light and Get Lost for difficult to deal with threats like creature-lands, Urabrask’s Forge, planeswalkers, etc. Not having instant-speed, unconditional black removal is a weakness that requires careful play to overcome.

There is so much more to say about this deck, and while its shaping up nicely, it still has a long way to go. If you’re a control mage at heart, like me, try taking this new version of Azorius Control for a spin and let me know what’s working and what isn’t!

Hi, I'm Damien! I'm a Canadian television and voice actor turned streamer! I've been playing Magic: the Gathering since the early 1990's when the game first released, and was heavily involved in competitive Magic for many years.