Azorius got a lot of strong cards in Ravnica Allegiance, but there does not seem to be one clear way to build the Guild. There aren't a ton of control cards other than Absorb. Most of the standouts, Dovin, Grand Arbiter in particular, appear better suited to a more aggressive build. To what extent that build should be white aggro splashing blue or a midrange flash build is not clear to me. Instead of just giving you one decklist, I'm going to take you through my testing process where I played five leagues with five different builds of Azorius Aggro. I'll share what I learned and how the matchups went along the way, and my reasoning for changes at each step. Then in the conclusion I'll address the bigger picture points that were learned, including patterns of cards that gave us problems. Although we did not end up with a perfect list throughout the testing, a lot can be learned from the testing process and also about the Azorius archetype in this new Standard format.
I started out with a version that had a large flash component. The idea was to be able to dictate the pace of play by having most of the action occur on the opponent's turn. Tithe Taker incentivizes the opponent to play their spells and activate their abilities on their own turn since they cost an extra mana on our turn. And many of our cards can be played at instant speed, which means we can take on a defensive posture without losing tempo if the opponent doesn't do anything on their turn that we want to stop.
We played three Syncopate and three Absorb as a way of stopping some of the really powerful cards of the format and we also play instant speed removal in the form of Settle the Wreckage and Seal Away. And if the opponent doesn't attack into our Settle or cast a spell into our counters, we can play Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage or Angel of Grace on the opponent's end step. Or if we already have Raff on the board we can play History of Benalia or a planeswalker on their end step instead since historic spells gain flash from Raff's ability.
I beat Mono Red Aggro pretty convincingly with this build, especially in post-board games when I got to bring in the Shield Mares. Our cards lineup pretty well against theirs and Absorb feels like a two-for-one when it counters a Lightning Bolt to the face.
I beat Esper Control too, largely because we were able to dictate the pace of play. Since a lot of our threats have flash and Tithe Taker forces spells to cost more on our turn, we could often force an opponent to tap out on their own turn trying to deal with our board. This would give us an opportunity to resolve Teferi or Dovin and begin taking over the game. Post-board we get more counters and can take out some of our removal. Just remember to keep enough removal in to deal with Thief of Sanity because otherwise that card will destroy you.
I then played against three Hadana's Climb decks in a row, which seems to be the evolution of Golgari with the addition of Growth-Chamber Guardian. I ended up winning one of the three matches and losing the other two. The one glaring problem with this matchup is that after we cast Settle the Wreckage to wipe their board, they would utilize those additional lands to cast a huge Hydroid Krasis. This would be fine since we have Counterspells for it, except that the trigger is like Genesis Hydra's trigger where it happens when being cast. This means that they gain the life and draw the cards even if we counter the creature spell. Given the popularity of this archetype and how poorly Settle matches up against Krasis, I decided to retool the approach of the deck.
Conclave Tribunal also underperformed. It is good with Dovin or History, but otherwise is way too clunky. We don't have enough ways to make cheap creatures for it to be good. So I decided to move Settle the Wreckage to the sideboard and removal Conclave Tribunal altogether. In their place I added Suncleanser, Baffling End, and Deputy of Detention. Most of these changes were to try and improve the Sultai Climb matchup.
I played against the Sultai Climb deck twice with this second iteration of the deck. I won the first match against it on the back of Dovin, Suncleanser, and Deputy of Detention. Suncleanser was great against their second turn Growth-Chamber Guardian because it meant it could not ever gain a +1/+1 counter and was instead stuck in permanent Grizzly Bear mode. Suncleanser and Deputy of Detention are each excellent ways at permanently exiling Hydroid Krasis. I lost a close second match against Sultai Climb when Biogenic Ooze got out of control. This is still a tough matchup but our plan felt a lot better than the Settle the Wreckage plan.
Things went downhill from there. I lost to Gruul Aggro because their creatures were too big and I never drew any copies of Settle the Wreckage, which is our best sideboard card against them. I think I want to go back up to the full four copies post-board for this type of matchup. It doesn't feel like that bad of a matchup if we draw a copy of Settle the Wreckage.
I lost a close match to Mardu Tokens, mostly because of Theater of Horrors, which basically draws them an additional card every turn and is very hard to keep up with. Judith was also annoying, but much easier to deal with since she is a creature. The fact that they have removal spells for Deputy meant that it was really difficult to deal with a resolved Theater of Horrors. Maybe Ixalan's Binding would be good for this matchup.
I then faced two copies of the Wilderness Reclamation ramp deck that loops Time Walks each turn on their end step. This isn't just a Turbo Fog deck anymore. Instead it is a Turbo Ramp Combo deck. I literally only had four turns in one of the games, and one of those turns involved attempting to counter one of their spells and having my counter countered. In order to improve this matchup, I decided to lower the curve to apply more pressure and also to add more cheap counters to the sideboard.
I lost to Mono Red Aggro one game because of Fiery Cannonade wiping our board and another game to Experimental Frenzy doing its impression of Theater of Horrors. Our cards line up well against theirs for the most part, but they have these few specific cards that can really give us problems. I didn't think of it at the time, but Ixalan's Binding would be a good answer to this enchantment too.
I beat Rakdos Aggro the next round, which is a similar matchup except they have better creatures than Mono Red.
I then beat Gruul Aggro with Baffling End and Deputy of Detention. Deputy is good because they are mostly creatures, so Deputy often survives. They board in some removal spells against us, but that's fine if you don't walk into a combat situation where they blow you out with a removal spell.
I then lost to Esper Control. Kaya's Wrath wiped my out in game one and I incorrectly boarded out too many removal spells and got beat by Thief of Sanity the next game because of it. Dovin, Grand Arbiter is excellent in this matchup. Any time you can use the -7 ability you're in great shape. It's almost like getting a triple Demonic Tutor.
I then played against Sultai Climb again. All my cards were matching up well against theirs and I was taking over the game. Then they wiped my board with Finality, getting back what was exiled by Deputy of Detention. Board wipes seem to be a recurring trend as our weakness, so I decided to go heavier on the planeswalkers for the next build.
I lost a close match to Sultai Climb again when they used Finality to wipe our board when they were very dead the following turn. I never drew a counter, which would have won the game.
I also lost to Boros Aggro and Merfolk. White decks seem like a tough matchup since they apply so much pressure early and then their anthems make combat difficult for us later. Maybe going heavy on the Settle the Wreckage plan post-board is ideal here. I'm not exactly sure as I only played against it once. Merfolk was a lot closer since they can't really stop our flying creatures and it mostly comes down to a race. They also don't have removal spells, so Deputy of Detention is excellent. I don't think the matchup is unfavorable. I just got stuck on two lands in game three.
I beat Jeskai Control and Esper Midrange the next two rounds. Deafening Clarion was strong against us, but all our planeswalkers were insane in both matchups. History of Benalia is also really good, as it is in most matchups. Getting both your tokens blown up by Deputy of Detention is kind of a beating.
For the fifth version I decided to try Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants now that we had enough two-drops to support it. I also added some one-drops to the deck to give us more pressure to close the door against the slower decks.
I lost to Rakdos Aggro because of Spawn of Mayhem. That card is difficult for this build because it can't be exiled by Baffling End, despite being cast for three mana. And they have so many removal spells that Deputy of Detention is not a reliable answer. They don't have an answer to Ixalan's Binding, though, which can conveniently answer any of their biggest threats against us. [insert thinking emoji].
I beat another Esper Midrange deck because planeswalkers and History backed by a couple removal spells is too much for their Game Plan.
I also beat Mono-Blue Aggro. I boarded out all my slow stuff and just played small ball against them. They usually only have one or two creatures you need to deal with over the course of a game, so Baffling End and Deputy of Detention are our best cards.
I then beat a Hadana's Climb deck, this time the Bant version, where Senate Guildmage did a lot of work in Merfolk Looter mode. The Guildmage impressed me in a few of the matches. Being able to gain life helped in race situations and being able to loot helped in long games where I could turn excess lands into more action. These are some useful abilities from a creature on curve.
I then lost a close match to the Wilderness Reclamation Time Walk deck because I never drew a Counterspell. This matchup seems to be all about countering a key spell or destroying their Wilderness Reclamation immediately. Even though I've been losing to the deck, I think it is very beatable if you dedicate the right answers to it.
So overall, throughout the five leagues and across the five different builds, these were my results:
4-1 Esper/Jeskai Midrange/Control
3-3 Rakdos/Gruul/Red Aggro
3-5 Hadana's Climb
0-2 Wilderness Reclamation
1-0 Mono Blue Aggro
0-1 White Aggro
Eleven wins and 13 losses is hardly an impressive record, but I learned a lot throughout the process. Azorius Aggro has the tools to hang with just about any strategy. Games would often come down to a single card from the opponent defeating us. The two kinds of cards that would do this are sweepers (Deafening Clarion, Finality, Kaya's Wrath, Fiery Cannonade) and enchantments that generate an advantage once per turn (Theater of Horrors, Experimental Frenzy, Wilderness Reclamation). Counterspells can stop all these things, so I think it was probably a mistake to move away from the counters main. We also probably want to add Ixalan's Binding to the deck as that card can take out the most difficult permanents we had trouble with.
I'm still not exactly sure exactly the best way to build Azorius, but I think going back to the first build has some merits. I also think testing out an aggro build with Counterspells would have some merits. Although I haven't yet arrived at the optimal build of the deck, I've identified the archetype's biggest weaknesses. If someone else believes they can solve these problems, Azorius can potentially be a top archetype. Tweet at me if you have a question or suggestion about the deck.