n.b. this post, alongside all the others titled ‘From the Vault’ were written by Ceri for the LilianaMarket blog. This one was originally posted 19 March 2019.
The starting point for me when choosing what deck to play for GP Bilbao was wanting to play maindeck Thalia, Guardian of Thraben – she just seems so well-positioned at the moment. I’d been playing Bant Spirits for a while and getting increasingly demoralised with it. Michael Pike had been on at me to try Azorius Spirits for ages, as the perfect vehicle for maindeck Thalia, which would also allow me to play a deck in a style I was familiar with. Shortly after I’d started testing it, Alan Swan came 2nd at the SCG Regionals Durham with Azorius Spirits, including Chalice of the Void in the sideboard. Based on my testing, and discussion with teammates, I came up with a list that included Chalice in the side but also included some of my ‘pet cards’, such as Detention Sphere.
Here’s a link to my Azorius Spirits list, which I’ll discuss below…
The Creature Package
Of course, the usual suspects are there as playsets (Spell Queller, Mausoleum Wanderer, and the two lords Drogskol Captain and Supreme Phantom). As well as the three Thalia, which guided the deck choice in the first place, I also included: one Remorseful Cleric as a nod to maindeck graveyard hate that doesn’t harm the overall gameplan; three Deputy of Detention, which can be really useful, even if a 1/3 is vulnerable; and one Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, which just feels great in a format full of spot removal. The other major difference to Bant Spirits is playsets of both Rattlechains and Selfless Spirit. Azorius Spirits is much more a tempo deck than Bant, and the Rattlechains enable this, and both Rattlechains and Selfless Spirit protect your Spell Quellers, which can also be key (Selfless Spirit has the added advantage of protecting your Deputy of Detention and Thalia too). I played one Phantasmal Image, it has obvious weaknesses but in game one generally, and against Bant Spirits and Humans even after siding, having an extra lord can be key and it’s clearly also very powerful when vialed in as a copy of Spell Queller or Deputy of Detention.
Basing a deck around Thalia means minimising the non-creature spells. I played four Aether Vial (instead of Bant’s usual three – again, maximising Azorius’s tempo potential) and three Path to Exile. Compared to Bant, however, at least you don’t have to take Collected Company into account whilst planning sideboard strategies.
The deck contains the obvious UW lands, which don’t require explanation, but I’ll comment on my non-UW land choice. When I first started playing the deck I played four Mutavault; however, in the end I went down to three so I could keep the colourless land count low enough to also include Moorland Haunt. Moorland Haunt is a risk, especially when you’re often siding in graveyard hate, but, it’s so good against removal-heavy decks, and, just as importantly, the ability to have a spirit enter at instant speed can be key in relation to Mausoleum Wanderer’s counter target instant or sorcery ability. The inclusion of Horizon Canopy led to some discussion amongst the team as to whether it’s necessary, but as this deck takes relatively little damage from its manabase I feel that the inclusion of a one-of painful-plains-with-upside is worth it. There is also a one-of Cavern of Souls, as a hedge against control. Bear in mind sometimes it’s worth naming ‘humans’, especially if bringing in Auriok Champion from the side. In one match I really confused my opponent by naming ‘vedalken’ (for Deputy of Detention)!
The Sideboard and Matchup Guide
Rather than going through the sideboard cards one-by-one, I’ll talk about some key match-ups and how I sideboarded during GP Bilbao. If following this as a guide, bear in mind I love Detention Sphere, probably a little too much, so I basically bring it in against virtually everything… you might not want to do the same!
One advantage I had at the GP is that in a number of cases I’m pretty sure my opponents were sideboarding according to their guide for Bant Spirits, which actually plays out very differently. One person even admitted afterwards they had sided in Grafdigger’s against me despite not seeing green mana or a co-co game one! It was also definitely true that most people were not expecting Chalice, as opponents mournfully showed me their handful of one-drops as they extended their hand.
Izzet Phoenix (2-0)
In: 3 Chalice (set to one); 2 Detention Sphere, 1 Auriok Champion, 1 Eidolon of Rhetoric, 1 damping sphere
Out: 4 Vial; 1 Phantasmal Image; 2 Drogskol Captain; 1 Path
This match-up felt much easier than mono-red phoenix, which was an exciting adrenaline-rush of will I be able to kill them before they burn me out! (spoiler: I didn’t!)
Thing in the Ice is the big problem, which is why I kept in 2 Path, despite the obvious nonbo with Chalice, because you must remove Thing if you possibly can, and you won’t always see the Chalice. Eidolon is great in this match-up too and just happens to be a spirit. After sideboarding Azorius Spirits can operate almost like a prison deck, in one game I had Damping Sphere, Chalice, Eidolon and Thalia all out at the same time!
Grixis Shadow (3-0)
In: 3 Chalice (set to one); 1 Auriok Champion; 2 Detention Sphere
Out: 4 Vial; 1 Phantasmal Image; 1 Path
This match-up felt really good; much better than I expected. Obviously, their lack of flying blockers affects them, plus the fact they do half the work for you. The same nonbo issue with Chalice and Path here, but again, they’re both so good against them that I think it’s ok. Kira was key here too – switching off the plus-one from Liliana the Last Hope feels good!
In: 2 Detention Sphere; 3 RIP; 1 Auriok Champion
Out: 1 Phantasmal Image; 1 Drogskol, 2 Rattlechains; 2 Vial
In testing I never won a game one against Dredge, but I never lost a match either. Rest in Peace, protected by Spell Queller and Mausoleum Wanderer is obviously key here. Detention Sphere taxes their enchantment removal too. Spell quellering Conflagrate for zero feels good. Stinkweed Imp is a pain, so try and save your paths for them if you can. At the GP things didn’t go as per my testing: I did win a game one, but I didn’t win both my matches against Dredge – I won one, and lost one. However, I do feel that overall this matchup is winnable.
Hardened Scales (0-1)
In: 2 Hurkyl’s Recall; 2 Detention Sphere; 3 RIP
Out: 1 Image; 3 Thalia; 3 other 2/1s… (I can’t remember which – I just shaved)
I think this is probably the hardest matchup for Azorius Spirits. The combination of Ballista, and flying blockers mean they’re good on offence and defense. This was my first round match in Bilbao – a rather dispiriting start! Rest in Peace is arguably better than Stony Silence against them, and I dream of one day my opponent sac’ing everything to one giant creature which I then Hurkyl’s Recall… it hasn’t happened yet though sadly!
In: 1 Damping Sphere; 2 Detention Sphere; 2 Disdainful Stroke
Out: 1 Image; 2 Rattlechains; 2 Thalia
This is another tough matchup; if they resolve Ugin it’s probably game over. I lost my one match against Tron at the GP. However, it’s not unwinnable, and had I seen my Disdainful Stroke things might have gone differently? After sideboarding, I managed to hold my opponent off doing tron things with Damping Sphere, and even after they managed to remove the sphere I killed their first Ugin by flashing in more spirits after they’d minused Ugin, and then attacking it. I also foiled their Oblivion Stone by flashing in Selfless Spirit. However, I ran out of resources to deal with their second Ugin.
In: 2 Disdainful stroke
Out: 2 Path
I lost this match. I think the matchup comes down to whether you can curve out quick enough to kill them before they can Scapeshift. It also helps if you have a counter ready for their Scapeshift (which I didn’t have). Although they have maindeck Anger of the Gods this is less of a problem for Azorius Spirits than other decks as you have 3-4 Selfless Spirits.
UW Control (1-0)
In: 2 Detention Sphere; 1 Damping Sphere; 2 Disdainful Stroke
Out: 1 Vial; 1 Path; 1 Image; 1 Selfless Spirit; 1 Drogskol Captain
This is probably over-sideboarding and I think on the play I would consider just putting in the Detention Sphere and Disdainful Stroke. Angels from the sideboard are a real issue, so don’t side out all your removal and don’t overextend into a Cataclysmic Gearhulk if you don’t need to (but equally, don’t be shy to be aggressive as you’re not winning the long game)
In: 3 Chalice (on one); 1 Auriok Champion; 1 Eidolon of Rhetoric
Out: 1 Image; 2 Vial; 2 Drogskol
I didn’t actually face burn at the GP, but I have played against it in testing so I’ve added it to the discussion here; although I haven’t actually faced it since I added Chalice to the deck, in theory Chalice will only improve the matchup. Eidolon of Rhetoric is a star here, and if you see that and can remove their creatures it’s very hard for them to beat you. Eidolon of the Great Revel is the star from their side, so watch out for that!
Bant Spirits and Humans
In: 2 Detention Sphere; 1 Auriok Champion
Out: 3 Thalia
I also didn’t face either of these, but from testing the key part of the matchup against both these decks is getting lords and Selfless Spirit down – these matchups can get very grindy so anything that means you can enable advantageous blocks is good. I’m not sure about Auriok going in but the life gain could swing the balance.
In: 3 Chalice (on zero); 2 Disdainful Stroke; 2 Detention Sphere; 2 Hurkyl’s Recall
Out: 4 Vial; 3 Path; 3 Drogskol
This is another matchup I didn’t face, and only played a couple of times in testing. Although I won the matches in testing, I don’t have a big enough sample size to fully know how this matchup plays out.
I think Azorius Spirits has real promise. Maindeck Thalia and access to powerful blue and white sideboard cards, as well as a tempo-orientated evasive creature package that can operate as a fast clock means it’s well positioned in the current meta. The addition of Chalice in the side took people by surprise, so some of that value may wear off, but the ability to shift into a quasi-prison deck post-sideboard is powerful. There are so many decks around at the moment that struggle with cards like Chalice and Rest in Peace, especially if you have Mausoleum Wanderers and Spell Quellers to protect them. One card mentioned by Alan Swan as a possibility going forward is Runed Halo, and that’s something I’m interested to try, especially as it proved so useful to Harriet this weekend in her deck. Feel free to ask questions or comment below and I’ll do my best to answer.
Thanks to Michael Pike for persuading me to play Azorius Spirits in the first place and helping me refine my list; and Alan Swan, ‘TheRift’, and others in the Modern Spirits Facebook Group and Discord for inspiration.