In honor of Azorius week, I want to sing of some of the unsung heroes of the guild. The cards I’ve chosen for this list are bursting with potential, have powerful mechanics, combine well with other cards, or simply do something most other cards can’t do. Yet, for one reason or another, they’ve either left their time in the limelight, or never got the chance to shine in the first place.
This is a complex game, and many factors make a card Constructed playable. When you’re competing against thousands of other puzzle pieces for a shot at a place in 75, it’s not difficult to be left out. While some of these guys had a little play in Standard or Block Constructed, or perhaps were Limited bombs, they are now passed over for other “better” options.
Cruising Gatherer, I realize that I absolutely love Magic. Not just the competition of it, nor the puzzle aspects of it, nor just the community—but the whole thing. A large part of that thing we call Magic: the Gathering is left in shoeboxes and binders in the back of the closet, and rarely sees the light of day. It’s too bad, really, because while many cards have found a second calling in Legacy, Vintage, Commander, or Cube, there are still thousands upon thousands with no place to call home. For some, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. But these, in my humble opinion, deserve better. Without further ado, I give you my Top 5(ish) Azorius cards that no one plays, but I wish they did:
Honorable Mention – Reparations
This card hits the trifecta of ridiculous art, awesome flavor text, and even does something. While most people cite it as being one of the top 5 most racist cards in the game (along with other hits like Invoke Prejudice), I think it has certain applications that are interesting beyond the obvious, “show your friends how silly the game used to be.” While often cards like this are criticized for being a blank, in many casual formats there are tons of interactions between your opponents’ spells and your creatures for you to reap the benefits.
The difficult part is the fact that traditionally, UW decks are low on creatures and high on interactivity, but we’ve seen a trend away from that tradition over the course of the last few years. In Return to Ravnica, for example, the Azorius Guild is more focused on tempo and offense than it is control and big spells—the apparent new direction for the color combination. More and more creatures are sliding into the UW decks, and as such, Reparations becomes more interesting.
Honorable Mention – Sawtooth Loon
The only card with the “gating” trigger that saw widespread play out of Block constructed that I can recall was Cavern Harpy, because the Harpy was part of the Aluren combo engine—a deck I’ve rather famously advocated against at all costs. The problem with the gating mechanic is that you invest mana into a creature that requires you to have a second creature to return—with the possibility of having that second creature fall to a removal spell, netting you negative mana and nothing to show for it.
The reason Cavern Harpy was so good at skirting that problem was twofold: one, Aluren took the mana investment out of the equation. You played the Harpy for free, so your opponent always paid more for the removal than you did for the creature. Second, because the second ability of the Harpy (pay 1 life to return it to your hand) meant that your opponent couldn’t respond to the gate ability with removal, as you could return and replay the Harpy to re-trigger the gate.
While Sawtooth Loon doesn’t have either of the advantages of Cavern Harpy, it has a very interesting enters-the-battlefield trigger that may or may not make up for some of the issues with gating creatures. The double loot effect means that even when you have no other creature for the Loon to return, you’ll have access to a draw-two when you need it, giving you the ability to dig into whatever threat you’re looking for.
I see the applications of this card returning things like Snapcaster Mage, Coiling Oracle, Shardless Agent, etc.—ones where you gain value time and time again by having the ability to replay them. For a while, I was toying around online with a UG deck built on this principle by returning these creatures to hand with ninjitsu via Ninja of the Deep Hours.
Perhaps four mana is too prohibitive, especially in any format where the same four-mana investment can be used to play a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. However, drawing two (and putting two on the bottom of your library, of course), getting a 2/2 flier, and getting value out of a sweet EtB trigger creature is a pretty great way to spend four mana.
Honorable Mention – Swans of Bryn Argoll
When Shadowmoor was released, I was convinced this card was going to be the breakout combo card of the set. I kind of missed on that mark (see: Painter’s Servant). It was pretty fantastic in Standard for a while, being part of the Seismic Swans combo deck that used Seismic Assault to discard lands and draw more, until it could dome the opponent for 20. Yet, as cool as that was, there was something just a whole lot cooler about using the Legacy combo.
Chain of Plasma would allow you to draw three cards and then discard one to chain it back to the Swans again. You could use this combo to draw through your entire deck, finally using either a flashed-back Conflagrate or charged up Lightning Storm for the kill.
As cool as this deck is, it never really took off—although the infamous Legacy deckbuilding duo of Alix and Jesse Hatfield did create a URg Threshold deck that used Swans as the top-end creature for a while. This deck featured 8 Lightning Bolt effects, used as pseudo-Ancestral Recalls when aimed at a Swan. If I saw any hope of Swans seeing play in Legacy again, my expectation is that it would be in a deck of that type, rather than the combo version.
Honorable Mention – Venser, the Sojourner
This gentleman saw enough Standard play in his day (and currently sees enough casual play) that he can’t really make the top 5 on lack of merit. He has three very interesting (and very unrelated) abilities, all of which have won me games from time to time. While he works the best in grindy control decks that want to blink a Wall of Omens over and over and over, he can also be fantastic in a token or swarming aggressive strategy that just wants the Overrun effect for five mana.
My favorite part of Venser is the dream of actually getting an emblem. As a pure control enthusiast, there’s something fundamentally rewarding about the idea of exiling my opponent’s board as I cast Brainstorm after Brainstorm, Pondering my way into removal spells for his threats as I do nothing and force him to watch, incapable of mustering a retort. Choking the life out of my opponent one permanent at a time, rather than 1 life point at a time, has appeal to me—which is probably why I love this guy (and Tidespout Tyrant) as much as I do.
5. Puresight Merrow
Perhaps it’s telling that the first card on my actual list is a Grizzly Bear with a combo-riffic ability. I can’t help the fact that I love awful combo decks—it’s part of what makes the game so appealing to me. Finding ways to make garbage cards like this one into powerful engines is a fun exercise to me—and I tend to think the combo is way better than it actually is. That’s probably why I own so many copies of Corpse Dance, [card composite golem]Dancing Golem[/card], and Bitter Ordeal.
In case you don’t recognize the combo potential here, it’s fairly simple. If you can find a way to make the Merrow tap for a mana, you can exile your entire library. If you can make it tap for more than one mana, you can add X mana, where X is the number of cards left in your library. I’m more interested in the first than the second, because there happens to be a zero-mana artifact (Paradise Mantle) that can do just that.
Of course, when you’ve accomplished this wonderful trick of exiling your library, you’d have to find a way to win the game. Fortunately, there are cards like Laboratory Maniac that reward you for this trick, and I’m certain many diligent readers have other ways to win from this position (possibly including Research//Development?).
I’ve always thought out-of-the-box combo decks like this have a really neat place in the game, and I’d love to see them actually get a little screen time here and there. Unfortunately, this one happens to be weak to the, well to the game really, which makes it fall off the list of “real” decks rather rapidly.
4. Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Caleb Durward proved to all of us that Signet Ramp can win an event. Where one can succeed, others can as well.
While many have struggled with the proper shape and configuration of a Prison style deck in Legacy, trying many combinations of Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, and Trinisphere, very few have tried out Grand Arbiter. In fact, very few have actually played Signets, rather than using Mox Diamond for the acceleration into their three- and four-mana spells. As such, they’ve struggled with colored mana requirements and card disadvantage, and fallen flat.
While colorless mana is usually not lacking in this type of deck, the difference between four and five mana, or three and four mana, is great—and it can be the difference between running one or two spells out on your turn. Combined with another card that could have made the list (Unbender Tine), there could be a large amount of mana and activity generated in rapid fashion—and you’re in the correct color to actually capitalize on the mana with card draw, as well.
If you’ve ever played with old school High Tide (the one with the Sapphires, not the one with the Resets—I mean old School), you can attest to how much easier shaving a single mana can make things. If you’ve played against Thalia lately, you understand how awful that can be.
3. Dovescape (Enchantress, Enduring Ideal)
There have been two times in my recollection where Dovescape was a legitimate and realistic win condition in Constructed Magic.
The first, and I imagine the more famous by far, was in Extended Enduring Ideal decks a few years back. Once you had the “lock” set up of Solitary Confinement + cards in hand, Dovescape allowed you to turn every Ideal into seven 1/1 flying creatures—and your opponent couldn’t do anything about it, as each of their spells would be countered by the Dovescape, protecting your Confinement.
The second was in Legacy Enchantress, where you would set up the same lock (Solitary Confinement + Dovescape), except rather than using Ideal as your engine, you would use a number of Argothian Enchantress effects (which include Enchantress’s Presence) to draw cards while casting tons of Doves. Since you trigger the draw on casting the spell, rather than resolving it, you get to draw from the Enchantress whether your spell resolves or not, meaning the Doves just keep on coming. Often when playing against this type of deck, players thought they could keep up with the Enchantress player, especially when Confinement wasn’t involved, but no matter how many times they Force of Will for five doves, the Enchantress player always seemed to have much more gas in the tank.
What I would have loved to see with this card is some sort of control shell that uses it to lock out combo players. We never got around to that, perhaps because of the expensive mana cost.
2. Meddling Mage
If you follow both me and Chris Pikula on Twitter, you’ll probably have noticed that I have a man crush on the Meddling Mage. I don’t deny it – how can you not? The dude rules. What you may not know is that I have a much deeper relationship with the card Meddling Mage. When I was a young lad, first cutting my teeth on Legacy, my deck of choice was UGW Threshold – and I played the deck specifically because it allowed me to maindeck a playset of the original Hate Bear. In my time as a player of Meddling Mage, I had a multitude of successes with him, and he was a solid set in the first tournament in which I found real success – The Mana Leak Open. With a set of Mages in tow, I managed to slug my way through a field rife with Iggy Pop combo and Reanimator, battling my way to the finals where I was defeated by Jeff Folinus with Goblins – and man, did Meddling Mage hate playing against Goblins. Still, I credit the little man with many a game win, including one of my favorite stories of the early days of Legacy:
It was game three against a friend of mine, Matt Abold, who had a weakness for decks created by Jack Elgin—a notorious Legacy player and internet bully, but pretty good dude. Jack’s deck of late was called “Rabid Wombat,” which is another in a long line of stupid deck names. This deck was mono-white control, using Bandage as a pseudo-Time Walk against turn 1 Goblin Lackey (when that was a thing to be worried about) and to cantrip on turn four into a blowout Wing Shards. I played the following cards, in order.
Turn 1: Nimble Mongoose
Matt showed me his hand of 2 Swords, a Wing Shards, Humility and a Wrath. He conceded.
Much like Cabal Therapy, proper utilization of Meddling Mage requires an intimate knowledge of the format you’re playing, and the most threatening spells your opponent can play on a given turn, as well as the answers to the Mage they’ll have access to. Format knowledge was always one of my strengths in Legacy, so it should come as no surprise that Meddling Mage is one of my all-time favorite cards. Greifer for life.
1. Mistmeadow Witch
In the running for my favorite card of all time, Mistmeadow Witch is the ultimate Astral Slide. Instead of filling your deck with a bunch of cycling cards, you just put a bunch of mana in there, and hit all your land drops while looping your Eternal Witnesses in and out of play.
I’ve made somewhere between 30 and 50 Commander decks since I began playing the format. At least half of them have been UW, and probably at least half of those were Bant—Because I love Witch + Witness THAT much.
Along with blinking out pure card advantage in the form of Eternal Witness (preferably to use Orim’s Chant or Plow Under over and over), I enjoy drawing cards with walls and Mulldrifters, I enjoy murdering the opponent’s cards with Nekrataal and Shriekmaw, I enjoy making Saproling tokens with Avenger of Zendikar, and I enjoy gaining life with Radiant’s Dragoons. But the thing that I like doing more than any other thing with Mistmeadow Witch is waving goodbye to my creatures at the end of the opponent’s turn, Wrathing the board, and saying hello to my team during my end of turn step.
I was brief about Venser, the Sojourner above, but I was intentionally so, because I didn’t want to spoiler myself as I discussed the Witch—best friends with Venser, by the way. In Cube drafts, my absolute favorite archetype is blinking Bant, specifically for the interactions I’ve described above. Between Momentary Blink, Mistmeadow Witch, and Venser, the Sojourner, you can often get a lot of value out of your battlefield triggers, and if you run the nuts and get a Witness in your pool (leading to me saying “can I get a Witness” during every pack of the draft), you can grind it out with the best of them. It certainly isn’t the most powerful deck, but I find it to be an unwholesome amount of fun.
Note: I also played Crystal Witness in Standard during Fifth Dawn.
To wrap up, I’ll just remind you all that while Azorius is often pigeon-holed into the control deck, there are a multitude of cards in the color combination that lend themselves to something a little different. Over the course of the nearly 20-year history of the game, there have been enough blocks with enough themes to allow most combinations of colors to do whatever you want them to. There are plenty of BR control decks, just like there are UW aggro decks—the color pie has bled enough to let these through the cracks. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing things simply because “that’s not what that color does.” While you’re at it, remember that there’s a lot more to love about Magic than winning tournaments, and try to come up with something to remind you of the fun that drew you to the game in the first place—whether that’s a game of Commander, a Cube draft, or just a look through your junk binder to see if there are any forgotten stars.