Competitive or casual, every Magic player, if given enough time, develops some pet decks or cards that for whatever reason we’re irresistibly drawn to, regardless of how effective they are. For us competitive players, it might be something we had success with at one point, maybe a signature tournament win or first qualification for a major event. Invariably we have to move on from our pet decks as the metagame changes or rotates. But we’re always longing for another chance to relive the glory days.
Pioneer is still a young format, having launched only seven months ago (cue Seven?! That can’t be right?? thoughts), but in the format’s infancy I grew attached to Ensoul Artifact and the Izzet Aggro deck built around it.
Izzet Ensoul was the first deck I had success with in Pioneer, and though I moved on to Mono-Black Aggro before the Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter last November, I’ve consistently revisited the deck whenever I thought it was well-positioned or unexpected. It has powerful synergies that can overwhelm any opponent by Turn 4, yet is scrappy enough to steal games even in the face of disruption.
The games where you limp over the finish line with a Gingerbrute attacking for the last few points of damage are among my favorite in Magic, because they always leave your opponent dumbfounded at how they could’ve lost.
I came back to Izzet Ensoul a few months ago, when Dimir Inverter, Mono-White Devotion, and Lotus Breach were ruling the Pioneer metagame, because the deck was favored in the latter two matchups while still being competitive against Inverter. It also enjoyed an excellent Bant Spirits matchup, which remained popular online at that time. But since Ikoria‘s release it’s been a tough time for Gingerbrute and friends.
That time is over. But to understand why, let’s look back on why the deck fell out of favor in the first place.
What Went Wrong for Izzet Ensoul
When Ikoria was released, it didn’t take long for us to realize the power of companions, and across all formats the race was on to find homes for nearly all of them. Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Yorion, Sky Nomad quickly separated themselves from the pack as the top tier of the new cycle, while a few other companions found specific homes, like Obosh, the Preypiercer in Obosh Gruul Aggro.
Unfortunately for Izzet Ensoul, it wasn’t a natural fit for any companion. It was one of many decks that accepted the consolation prize known as Jegantha, the Wellspring. Having a free late-game creature in a deck that had problems with mana flood is certainly a positive, but relative to the rest of the field it was a huge step backward. Even the Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks moved on from Jegantha for the power of Yorion.
Next, the rise of Lurrus brought a glut of cheap removal to the metagame. Lurrus Boros Burn put pressure on everyone to react early and often, and Yorion raised the stock of enchantment-based removal like Baffling End and Trial of Ambition. All of these cards match up excellently against Izzet Ensoul. The deck plays an all-in style where you frequently force your opponent to have an answer immediately, but when they do there isn’t a lot you can do about it.
All the interactive decks got better at interacting with you, and great matchups like Bant Spirits largely disappeared because they lost the companion game as well. Izzet Ensoul didn’t have the malleability to adapt and thus died.
The biggest change has been the rise in metagame share for Yorion decks relative to Lurrus decks. Lurrus Orzhov Auras is largely nonexistent, and while the Yorion decks are better at interacting than they were before, it’s still preferable to play against them than against Orzhov Auras, which is more explosive and better at racing due to lifelink, or Lurrus Boros Burn, which has a bevy of cheap removal spells to disrupt your synergies.
We’ve also seen Lotus Breach return to prominence after receding to the fringes of the metagame, a matchup that is historically excellent for Ensoul because of its combination of pressure and disruption.
Lastly, the previous week saw a resurgence of control decks, with Yorion Azorius Control taking down a Super Qualifier and Esper Control winning a Challenge, among other control decks across various Top 8s. These matchups have historically been quite good for Ensoul because you can easily get underneath them and recover quickly from Supreme Verdict. The Fatal Pushes in Esper are a huge addition, but I’d still feel confident from the Ensoul side.
Despite the favorable metagame conditions, I still wouldn’t recommend a traditional Izzet Ensoul deck, because without a good companion it’s not powerful enough. It’s effectively a worse version of Orzhov Auras. Ensoul needs to adapt to utilize Lurrus.
Conceptually, doing so is simple. The deck already plays a ton of cheap permanents and Lurrus can help you assemble the powerful synergies the deck offers even in the face of disruption. One of the key aspects to maximizing Lurrus that I’ve noticed is that you want to pair it with must-answer cheap threats so that you force the removal out of your opponent’s hand, and then follow it up with Lurrus and overload them. Ensoul does that rather well, so the fit makes sense.
The stumbling block is your mana. The deck has a relatively low land count and wants to take advantage of colorless utility lands in Darksteel Citadel and Mutavault. If Lurrus had been a red card, Izzet Ensoul may have become the best deck in the format, but making the mana work is a struggle when it’s Orzhov. With the unfavorable metagame we saw a month ago, trying to make it work wasn’t worth the effort, but now it is.
I’ve seen a few different lists trying to solve this problem, but an Azorius one developed by noted grinder VTCLA caught my eye because it incorporated more individually powerful cards while maintaining the deck’s powerful synergies. I’ve worked on it over the last weekend and arrived at this very similar list:
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 2 Hope of Ghirapur
- 4 Gingerbrute
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
The major difference between my list and the original is the manabase, where I incorporated two copies of Aether Hub in an attempt to increase the number of colored sources without taking too much damage against Lurrus Boros Burn. When I first picked up the deck I was worried about the low artifact count, but Lurrus lets you retain a substantial battlefield even in the face of disruption.
If you’re going to commit to Lurrus, you have to commit to either white or black, and the former offers much more. Toolcraft Exemplar is a great rate on its own and Thraben Inspector is effectively a cheap artifact with other text. All That Glitters effectively replaces Skilled Animator since it fits the Lurrus restriction, so there’s a lot to like from white.
The problem comes in the mana because the roster of good allied-color multicolor lands for aggro decks begins and ends with the shocklands. Blue is friendly with both white and black so there’s no avoiding it, hence white gets the nod. A Seachrome Coast or Adarkar Wastes to replace some of the Aether Hubs and Mana Confluences would be a huge help, but the mana here is still workable by increasing the land count.
I always played two Mutavault and 21 total lands in Izzet Ensoul, but with Lurrus this deck can use its mana going long, so 23 with four copies of Mutavault makes a lot of sense. And Mutavault is truly an MVP here. It’s the chief advantage that Azorius Ensoul has over other aggro decks, which play very low land counts. This deck rarely stumbles in the early-game, yet has plenty of ways to mitigate flood with Mutavault, Ghostfire Blade, and Stonecoil Serpent.
Despite the increased land count, VTCLA resisted the urge to play some of the mediocre two-drops that Pioneer offers Ensoul decks, namely Steel Overseer, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Hangarback Walker. None of them are particularly powerful, and I’d rather flood the battlefield with one-drops than try to take advantage of these. The more pressure you can put on your opponent, the more they will be forced to interact, and the more likely your Lurrus lives.
I’ve also been happy with VTCLA’s choice to maindeck three copies of Stubborn Denial. The card moved in and out of my Izzet lists as the metagame dictated, and right now the card is well-positioned because it’s good against the most popular aggro strategy, Lurrus Boros Burn. The shift from Skilled Animator to All That Glitters also helps Stubborn Denial since it’s much easier to protect a two-mana spell than a three-mana spell.
In the sideboard, white continues to shine, offering several good exile-based removal options in Isolate, Glass Casket, and Glare of Heresy. Exile removal is important here because in aggro matchups you want to take the pressure off your life total without enabling Lurrus. Oh, and remember that you can Ensoul Artifact your Glass Casket if necessary since it’s an artifact. Disdainful Stroke is the best counterspell since it hits Gyruda, Doom of Depths; Inverter of Truth; and Granted.
Relative to Izzet, the Azorius Ensoul deck is slower against the goldfish but significantly more powerful against disruption, and that’s exactly where you need to be right now. But with all the five-color lands already in the deck, maybe we can have our cake and eat it, too.
The Case for Shrapnel Blast
Looking over lists from last weekend, this one from Saturday’s Challenge stuck out as a greedier, but more powerful way to go with Ensoul:
- 4 Ornithopter
- 3 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 2 Hope of Ghirapur
- 4 Gingerbrute
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
- 1 Alseid of Life's Bounty
This list sacrifices the maindeck Stubborn Denials and Thraben Inspectors to play Shrapnel Blast and Ornithopter. Ornithopter helps enable Springleaf Drum to help out the manabase, though you do sacrifice a Mutavault and a pair of All That Glitters to make everything fit.
My worry is that the mana gets even more inconsistent than it is, but looking at this list that doesn’t appear to be the case. This list has more colored sources and fewer colored cards, with enough red sources to make the splash work. The real cost isn’t in consistency but in power, since you have to put Ornithopter and Springleaf Drum in your deck.
That said, I played Ornithopter and small numbers of Springleaf Drums in Izzet Ensoul before and came away impressed. Flying bodies are always welcome targets for Ensoul Artifact and Ghostfire Blade and having a free creature lets you flood the battlefield and back it up with pump spells as efficiently as possible. There’s a trade-off to regain some of the explosiveness of Izzet at the cost of some of the late-game of Azorius and it’s not clear to me which list strikes the best balance.
The acceleration from Drum and Ornithopter also lets you land a profitable Lurrus on Turn 3 quite often, either by recasting an Ornithopter for free or generating a fourth mana with Drum so you can recast a one-drop. The power of Turn 3 Lurrus is readily apparent from Modern and Mishra’s Bauble, so I’m excited by that aspect of this deck.
The games where you limp over the finish line with a Gingerbrute attacking for the last few points of damage are among my favorite in Magic.
Regardless of whether you splash red or not, Lurrus accentuates the scrappy elements of Ensoul decks which I love, without detracting from the explosive capabilities that the deck has. After a brief flirtation with Abzan Rally, I’m back on the Ensoul train and ready to ride with my baby for as long as I can.
Note that this guide is for the Azorius list, not Jeskai.
VS Lurrus Boros Burn
Of the most commonly played decks, this is your worst matchup, but you’re good enough against the rest of the field that it doesn’t sink you. In general All That Glitters is weak against decks with lots of removal and Toolcraft Exemplar is weak when you have to play defensively. Both are true in this matchup and those cards come out for a pile of removal and a singleton Shadowspear, which is only here for this matchup.
Sometimes on the play you can run away with an early Ensoul or All That Glitters but most of the time you are playing defensively early on, maintaining Lurrus parity, and eventually turning the corner with a pumped evasive threat. Beware of Chained to the Rocks after sideboarding and prioritize removing Soul-Scar Mage because it’s their other way to effectively answer big creatures.
VS Lurrus Boros Heroic
Easier than Boros Burn since they have less removal. Trading resources favors you since they eventually run out of tricks and have a battlefield of mediocre creatures, but if you have to race, it’s going to be tight. Be familiar with stock decklists and play around as much as you can. Their best threat is Dreadhorde Arcanist since it gives them a steady stream of pump spells, so prioritize removing it.
VS Dimir Inverter
A good matchup regardless of whether they’re playing Yorion or not, though I’d prefer to play against the Bird Serpent since a fast combo is scary, especially in Game 1. Heavy removal means All That Glitters comes out. Bomat Courier attacks poorly into Thassa’s Oracle, so I trim a couple of copies.
These lists all run Cry of the Carnarium now, so keep that in mind when developing and prioritize creating at least one three-toughness threat. Sometimes there’s tension of whether to equip Ghostfire Blade and lose tempo to a Fatal Push or extend another creature into Cry, so you’ll need to perform some risk-reward analysis here.
The other dynamic is their combo. The more it seems like they have it, the more you have to play into their removal. The 60-card lists are much better at comboing early, so consider that in your decision-making process.
VS Yorion Lukka Fires
They don’t interact with your creatures at instant-speed, so you can take your time to land your pump with protection if you have it. Otherwise, you want to make their mana as awkward as possible. Don’t jam Ensoul the turn before they want to Baffling End anyway unless you have good reason. Also, make sure you can attack a Teferi, Time Raveler down immediately because instant-speed sweepers are a nightmare.
I cut a few copies of All That Glitters since they’re poor against Teferi and Gideon of the Trials, along with Thraben Inspector since I want all the haste creatures and the extra card from Inspector isn’t enough to win a long game against a deck with that much raw power. You have to get them dead before their end-game comes online, so don’t be afraid to take risks when necessary.
VS Lotus Breach
A good matchup due to your combination of pressure and disruption. They have some combination of Blast Zone, Ratchet Bomb, Wilt, and Blink of an Eye as disruption, so play around those as best you can while applying significant pressure. You’ll want to have a good understanding of their deck so you know how to leverage your counterspells effectively. It’s always contextual. Test from the Breach side if you’re lacking here.
VS Lurrus Abzan Rally
The Stubborn Denials really help here since they have a tough time racing you without a big Rally the Ancestors or Return to the Ranks. Prioritize pumping an evasive threat since they can block for days, hence why Bomat Courier comes out.
VS Yorion Azorius Control
Stonecoil Serpent is your MVP here since it dodges Teferi, Time Raveler and Azorius Charm. Try to hold haste creatures since they’re your best follow-up to a sweeper, especially in conjunction with your pump effects. Lurrus is also an excellent follow-up, demanding another sweeper immediately.
If they don’t get a stream of card advantage online, you have lots of time to peck away at them with Mutavault(s), so try to maintain a battlefield that’s just big enough to attack down a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. If you’re in the end-game where you’re trying to limp over the finish line, don’t extend into an unnecessary spell into Absorb. Make them have the removal first.