Izzet: Not Just For Delver Anymore

Read why Sam thinks the future of Izzet is U/R/x Control and take a look at his deckbuilding process to get ideas for what to play in new Standard at this weekend’s SCG Open Series in Cincinnati!

Most discussion I’ve seen about building Izzet decks in the new Standard has focused on Delver of Secrets, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. Yes, the color combination wants to play a lot of spells, but with so few early cantrips and no real library manipulation, the land count alone makes it hard to flip Delver of Secrets. Besides, when the guild mechanic is based on having a ton of mana to make spells supercharged, why are we trying so hard to end the game as fast as possible? To me, it seems like the early creatures we want are Augur of Bolas and Snapcaster Mage, and we want a high land count.

The real strength of Izzet is the combination of red’s cheap one for one removal with blue’s card draw, and Return to Ravnica, while short of cheap cyclers for obvious reasons, is very generous with card draw. Inspiration is passable in a pinch, but Thoughtflare is an exciting card that’s been largely overlooked from what I’ve seen. Yes, five is a lot of mana, but draw four discard two is huge.

U/R/x Control—that’s where I think the future of U/R is, not Delver of Secrets.

The big question: how do we win?

We lose Consecrated Sphinx, Frost Titan, Inferno Titan, Wurmcoil Engine, Karn, and even Batterskull. That doesn’t really leave us with anything. Well, that’s not exactly true. We could just play a control game and eventually slam a huge Runechanter’s Pike on an Augur of Bolas that wasn’t doing anything. But what other options are there?

Well, the most obvious Izzet finisher is probably Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius himself. 5/5 is a good size—Dismember is no longer around, and five is enough toughness to live through Mizzium Mortars. It’s unfortunate that five power is something of a liability if Selesnya Charm is popular, which it’s positioned to be because of the default synergy with populate. How good is Niv-Mizzet if he lives? Well, his ability is something like Olivia Voldaren against small creatures, except that you can draw cards for two mana (while incidentally damaging your opponent). That seems pretty good. It’s definitely worse at drawing cards than Consecrated Sphinx, but that’s a pretty unrealistic bar. I’d say he’s serviceable if we need a finisher, but not the kind of thing I’d go out of my way to build around.

Sphinx of the Chimes is the only realistic U/R alternative I can find that really fills the "finisher" role in a remotely realistic fashion. Obviously, if we’re Izzet we’re not getting really cute with it and Veilborn Ghoul, and Squee, Goblin Nabob isn’t legal. But it probably wouldn’t be too hard to sculpt a hand that could trigger it if we wanted to. I honestly have no realistic way of comparing this card to Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius without playing it. They’re both six mana Dragons that primarily draw cards. Sphinx has a much better "come into play" ability since you can use it right away if you’ve sculpted your hand, but it is almost certainly less dominant if you untap with it, especially if you’ve had to spend most of your resources living to get it into play.

Obviously, big creatures have been good finishers lately because they have been so good, but they certainly aren’t the only way to win games of Magic. We could just Devil’s Play opponents out. We could Burning Vengeance. I would love if we could realistically try to win with Psychic Spiral, which happens to play beautifully with draw and discard in cards like Desperate Ravings and Thoughtflare. We could also win with Staff of Nin, probably supported by some random burn spells.

Of course, we’re not limited to cards from Return to Ravnica as our primary win conditions. We could easily use Thundermaw Hellkite, or we could go a little deeper: Charmbreaker Devils has the four toughness problem, but Heretic’s Punishment doesn’t. Increasing Confusion? Or maybe we could go a little less off the deep end and just play Lone Revenant or Tamiyo.

And, finally, the more controlling our deck is, the easier splashing becomes since we’re planning to play a lot of mana sources and draw a lot of cards, and the fact that the mana happens to be particularly good in this format only makes it easier. Splashing for Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, for example, seems pretty trivial if that’s what we have to do.

For the sake of keeping focus rather than trying to build every possible control deck that touches blue and red, I’m going to try to focus on U/R decks with at most a light splash outside of that.

First, I’m very curious about Psychic Spiral. There are actually a few different ways to use this card. First, I could just play it like an Elixir of Immortality—try to trade a lot, draw a lot of cards, and fill my graveyard with good cards then put them back so that I get a super dense deck that I can easily cycle through to find answers. If I’m just doing this for value, that’s fine, but with a card that’s basically completely blank if I draw it early, I want to really get paid when it’s good. It’s not really better than Elixir of Immortality, which is also legal.

Also, an important consideration for U/R specifically is that Desperate Ravings is pretty awesome if we’re not super-fast but risky if we’re counting on one specific card. If this were Elixir, we could just put it into play and sit on it before we cast Desperate Ravings, but that’s not an option with Psychic Spiral. However, being a sorcery does open the door to other options, like using Mystic Retrieval to pick it up when we’re ready if we discard it. Similarly, we could use Codex Shredder, which could also help us get to the state where it becomes lethal.

So what would it look like if I were to try to build a Turbo Spiral deck? I don’t think this is a Thoughtflare deck—it actually ended up resembling the "Dredge" deck I made when Innistrad came out. Consider:

The sideboard would be more of the same, with an assortment of planeswalkers, maybe a couple Dreadbores, and some artifact removal. I could even imagine some minor tweaks supporting an Unburial Rites / Griselbrand sideboard. If someone saw basically your entire deck game 1 and your best creature was an Armored Skaab, they probably won’t be too prepared to deal with creatures in game 2. If you tweaked the mana a little to have a few white sources, you could play one to two Unburial Rites and Griselbrand, one to two Faithless Looting (which you could maindeck pretty easily), and you could side into doing the same thing except sometimes with Griselbrand, who happens to be pretty good at getting through your library.

For that matter, Psychic Spiral is also another good way to profit off going big with Sphinx of the Chimes. See, the great thing about Sphinx of the Chimes is that if you can get the reaction going by triggering it once or twice—I imagine it just goes nuts from there. Ordinarily, that just means you deck yourself, so it’s not that desirable, but if you’re drawing to a Psychic Spiral, you don’t have to be the one you’re decking.

I still want to build a Thoughtflare deck, but perhaps what I want to do is use Thoughtflare to turn on Sphinx of the Chimes. Maybe I’ve settled the Sphinx of the Chimes versus Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius debate for myself.

I think this basically works, but the problem is that I really don’t want my deck full of card selection to be a deck full of four-ofs. This isn’t a linear aggro deck where I’m trying to do the same thing every game—I guess it’s kind of a linear combo deck, which is fine—I just want to build a control deck. Instead, trying to go off with Sphinx of the Chimes forces me to build by the rules of building combo. I want a deck that looks more like:

Obviously, this is just a starting point. There’s a good chance this deck can’t actually win games. That, for example, would be the kind of thing I’d try to work on in testing. I’m not sure if the best solution is just to splash some Drownyards and pretend that filling my opponent’s graveyard slowly somehow won’t cost me the game (unlikely); more realistically, I’ll need to form a plan to actually kill my opponent (unfortunate).

One big problem is that without Phantasmal Image and some Titans, I can’t really win if my opponent ever resolves a five-mana spell. Sigarda, for example, might as well be Battle of Wits. Thragtusk requires a horrific amount of work for me to deal with. If I want the deck to look anything like this, I probably just have to play Bonfire of the Damned, which I’m not a fan of in control decks, but that’s probably just because I’m stupid to be honest.

So it lacks life gain and big creatures that can block and/or trump five-drops. I think those are the major problems with that list.

Olivia is a pretty real answer to the five-drop problem potentially. Switcheroo is a cuter approach but is probably worse. If I just wanted to fill my deck with card draw, Sturmgeist could be my big trump, but I’d have to be very careful about not dying to little creatures while I’m drawing cards and Sturmgeist isn’t exactly hard to kill.

Splashing white helps with the lack of answers to big creatures and can potentially help with the lack of life gain. Moving more heavily white deals with the end game issue (Angel of Serenity). I don’t like any of the red/blue finishers outside of Psychic Spiral (that’s a pretty awkward pick for "best finisher"), so I think white is the solution.

Yes, this looks much better. This deck has real answers to all kinds of threats, tons of value, flexibility, good cards… I think the lesson here is that there’s not really any reason for control decks to stick to two colors in this format. Also worth noting, as much as this deck does have good answers to things, I’m really missing Blade Splicer—Thragtusk is still a problem for this deck. I have four counterspells for it of course, which helps, and Restoration Angel can trump the token, but it’s still not too hard to imagine falling behind. This is mostly to point out exactly how good Thragtusk looks to be going forward, rather than necessarily a serious criticism of this deck.

As for the sideboard, most things should be fairly obvious. Knight of Glory is just because I really want to be sure I’m beating Zombies. Rest in Peace doesn’t hurt me if I side out Snapcaster Mage, and I think there might be some decks that use the graveyard very heavily (I think I’d want one or two but not three against Zombies). Sundering Growth is difficult to cast, and Naturalize isn’t as good as it was before since an artifact block rotated out.

But still, an instant answer that can be Snapcastered can be a lot better than Detention Sphere when it comes to answering things with an immediate impact on the board, like Intangible Virtue or Runechanter’s Pike, and it lets me kill opposing Detention Spheres. Restoration Angel is mostly there because I felt awkward about only playing two in the main to be honest, but there are some places where it matches up particularly well against what the opponent is doing. Supreme Verdict is obvious, and the rest are to help against other control decks.

Oh, you also may have noticed that I’m just putting four Pillar of Flame and four Augur of Bolas in all of my decks without really commenting on it. I consider those cards absolutely mandatory in this style of deck if I’m going to have any chance against Zombies. This isn’t to say that I think those cards by themselves means that I’ll beat Zombies, but I think Zombies will be enough of a force early that I have to respect it and they seem like a necessary starting line of defense against them. I think all decks built now need to make similar concessions to hedge in that matchup to really be seriously considered.

So a cute deck, an interesting combo/control deck, a failed control line, and a deck I think shows promise. That doesn’t seem like a bad day’s work to me.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with an article about drafting Return to Ravnica for Selesnya week for those of you who aren’t getting into new Standard yet, but that’s it for today.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter


I am Simic. I don’t care that much about beating my opponent. I just want to learn and grow as a player.