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October 14, 2012

Return to Ravnica: Azorius Advance Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

Sometimes things are simple. As we saw in our last review, the Izzet guild presented few hurdles to Wizards R&D, either in its initial conception or its Return to Ravnica iteration. Both Red and Blue had a natural affinity for instants and sorceries, so the ‘design space’ the Izzet occupied virtually carved itself out. The Izzet’s first mechanic, replicate, was fairly straightforward, and didn’t cause any headaches in development (that we know of). When it came time to create their second mechanic, for Return to Ravnica, lead designer Ken Nagle already had the perfect fit- from a mechanic he’d come up with some years back in the Great Designer Search. Sometimes, everything just comes together.

Other times, well…

Our final guild, the Azorius, is a tale of struggle, and the yearning to break free of the mistakes of the past. In their initial iteration in Dissension, the guild mechanic was forecast. The forecast ability let you reveal a card with the keyword from your hand during your upkeep, pay the forecast cost, and receive a spell-like effect. Take, for instance, Steeling Stance, a common featured in the Azorius Ascendant Theme Deck. A three-mana instant that pumped your army +1/+1, if you played it through forecast you could give one of your creatures +1/+1 and not lose the card in hand. There was a ‘hidden cost’ as well in terms of information- your opponent now knew you had a Steeling Stance in hand, and would certainly take that into account when attacking or blocking. On the other hand, the spell-like effects of forecast cards were uncounterable, since you weren’t actually casting the spell when you used the ability.

This gave R&D some pause for thought. Since the only way to stop forecast from going off was more or less through discard, they were concerned that if you had a forecast effect that was too strong you might simply see players sit with full hands, forecasting their way to victory. There was considerable pushback from development, leading Aaron Forsythe to later refer to forecast as “the ability that almost wasn’t.” In the end, a compromise was reached where forecast was greenlighted, but given the least amount of card space of any guild mechanic. Put another way by Mark Rosewater, “for both power and logistics concerns, forecast was not pushed and Azorius never got a chance to shine.”

This disappointing history caused Nagle to want to hit a home run with the guild this second time around. Unfortunately, the Azorius didn’t want to cooperate. The initially-proposed mechanic quickly disqualified itself, but Design was having a difficult time coming up with a replacement. In his recent ‘mailbag column,‘ Rosewater was asked by one reader how many different mechanics were tried for each guild before they found the right one. His reply:

A rough guess…

Izzet—1 
Selesnya—2 (one was a tweak of the other)
Golgari—4 (all variants on the same thing)
Rakdos—6
Azorius—20

In the end, it took the forming of a sub-team led by Mark Globus to come up with the answer, after a great deal of trial and error. Globus, who had served as both a designer and developer for some time before breaking into lead positions in Magic 2012, Commander, and Planechase 2012, headed this task force which met several times a week to crack what had become a rather niggling problem- how to design a mechanic for the control-coloured Azorius that didn’t bog down the game state? From these meetings, detain was born.

More a tempo play than a control play, detain locks down an opposing creature for a turn. With momentum on your side it can allow you to outrace your opponent, but doesn’t cause the game to devolve into “draw-go” style matches which produce grindingly long matches. As we’ll see, Azorius Advance is surprisingly creature-heavy for a White/Blue deck, but as we’ll see, that’s just what the Azorius have in mind.

Serve the Law

At its heart, Azorius Advance is a creature deck, but a fairly well-rounded one. It has elements of both weenie decks (with a packed 2-drop slot), Skies/evasion decks (eleven fliers and one unblockable body), and even control decks with fat closers.

It opens with a pair of Trained Caracals, one-drop 1/1’s with lifelink. These are nothing great, though they do make tempting targets for your Righteous Authority later in the game. Aside from that, they don’t do a lot to advance the deck, and you’ll seldom be happy to see one turn up later in the game.

Your two-drops are a bit better. To begin with, you have a trio of Silvercoat Lions, the latest version of the vanilla core in the Return to Ravnica Intro Pack decks. These are reminiscent of the Walking Corpses in Golgari Growth, which are neither sexy nor glamourous but have a job to do all the same. A slight tweak to power/toughness plus flying gives us the Concordia Pegasus, which provides a fairly useful 3 toughness as early as turn 2. The evasion is solid, even if the power is fairly low.

We also have our first taste of detain in the Azorius Arrester, a straightforward 2/1 body that detains a creature when it comes into play. One of the challenges of the combat deck is being able to overcome the enemy’s defneses once the game starts to transition into the midgame, and the Arrester provides one very useful answer. For a more repeatable effect, you also get a single copy of the New Prahv Guildmage, which can both detain as well as issue flying when needed.

Moving on to the three-drops, we find the evasion suite continuing with the Vassal Soul. A more balanced Pegasus, the Soul offers 2 power in the sky, but at the expense of a point of toughness. Balancing in the other direction is the Lyev Skyknight, a 3/1 that detains upon arrival. The final card here is this set’s version of the Thieving Magpie, the Stealer of Secrets. Although she doesn’t have any evasion of her own, should you manage to find some in the deck and have her hit your opponent reliably you can quickly begin to pull away from your opponent on card advantage alone.

The four-drop slot is the deck’s smallest, a mere two cards. The Azorius Justiciar is another small body (2/2), but the higher pricetag is on account of the fact that he detains not one, but two creatures when he enters the battlefield, making him very useful as a surprise maneuver to line up an alpha strike later in the game. Your opponent may learn to expect one here and there, but a double detain can catch even the most prepared defenses off-guard. The Soulsworn Spirit, on the other hand, simply waltzes right past them. It, too, brings along a wee bit of detention.

Finally, we arrive at the top of the curve, home to a further seven creatures. The Bazaar Krovod is a 2/5 Beast that rewards you for attacking with it by boosting another of your attackers, letting you commit even more creatures to the fight by providing you an untapped defender in the bargain. The Battleflight Eagle, on the other hand, has a one-time enters-the-battlefield bonus of +2/+2 and flying, just the thing to help lift a few of your ground-based options over the opponent’s blockers.

Then we have the Skyline Predator, a six-mana 3/4 that comes equipped with both flash and flying. Played at the right time, you can essentially 2-for-1 your opponent by killing one of their attackers while going up a body in the process. The deck’s final creature is the premium rare card, Archon of the Triumvirate. The Archon combines the best elements of the New Prahv Guildmage and Azorius Justiciar- double detains that are repeatable. With every attack, the Archon is locking down your opponent’s best permanents, and with 4 power in the air your opponent likely won’t be long for this world.

Tablet of the Guilds

Duty, Honor, and Valor

Like the creature complement, the noncreature support package tends towards generalism by giving you a little bit of everything. There’s a trio of combat tricks in the Swift Justice and twin Shows of Valor, helping to turn the red zone into a very unpredictable place for your opponent. You also get a smattering of removal, though it’s not the most consistent package ever assembled. A pair of Arrests– originally a Mercadian Masques card that’s been reprinted a few times- lead the way here, followed by an Inaction Injunction and Dramatic Rescue. These latter two are both tempo plays, one being a bounce spell and the other a detain trigger that replaces itself in your hand. Azorius Advance is less worried than most decks about removing your opponent’s threats, since detain clears them nicely out of the way of your attackers anyway.

Next up is the Tablet of the Guilds, a lifegainer artifact that helps reward you for playing multicoloured spells. It’s not a great option, but won’t fail to gain you some life if played early enough in the course of a game. If that wasn’t enough lifegain for you, there’s also an Angel’s Mercy, one of the less-welcome sights in the deck. Naturally, you also get a pair of Azorius Keyrunes here, in keeping with the cycle across the set’s Intro Packs.

The final card is the deck’s second rare, Righteous Authority. An updated Empyrial Armor, it costs two extra mana but brings along a welcome addition: a one-sided Howling Mine. This gives it a bit of single-card synergy, since the extra card will help keep the aura-bearer’s power and toughness up.

On the whole, we’re eager to test the deck out and try the detain mechanic. With as much effort that’s been put into detain as they have, it’s certain to be an interesting play. See you in two days, when we report back on our findings!

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