Exploring Expressive Iteration In Modern

Todd Anderson revisits powerhouse Strixhaven card Expressive Iteration, focusing on its uses in Modern.

Expressive Iteration, illustrated by Anastasia Ovchinnikova
Expressive Iteration, illustrated by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

When Expressive Iteration was first previewed, it caught my attention immediately. Gerry Thompson put it into his Top 5 of Strixhaven, which made me take a second look. Really? An uncommon that just does some card filtering? Doesn’t look much better than Light Up the Stage.

You can play lands from exile.

Well, that certainly changes things.

Expressive Iteration

I immediately set out writing an article about this new card advantage spell for Izzet. After understanding exactly how it worked, it was my pick for best card in the set, and potentially a staple in older formats for the rest of time. It shined alongside free spells like Mishra’s Bauble, so why wouldn’t it do the same in Vintage with Moxen and Black Lotus? It didn’t take long for me to grasp just how impactful this card would be in every format it touched for the foreseeable future.

I’ll admit that, even then, I didn’t understand just how good Expressive Iteration was. I was looking to play it in virtually every Delver of Secrets-style deck. I wanted spells that were cheap and interactive, and had mana sinks to use extra lands later in the game. Lurrus of the Dream-Den seemed like an obvious fit, as both Grixis and Jeskai could potentially put that extra card and mana to good use. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Expressive Iteration would find a home in virtually every Izzet-based control deck too.

It’s good. Really good. Good enough to write multiple articles about, good enough to spend an hour or day or a week studying it and discussing how to properly use it, and good enough that today’s article will be entirely and utterly focused on how to play it, when to play it, and where to play it. Like Brainstorm, the strength of Expressive Iteration lies in finding the right time and place to cast it. As the game goes late, Expressive Iteration becomes your best spell because it can potentially be your two best spells. In the middle turns, it can be a way to hit land drops and dig for tools to stabilize. Even early on, you can play it when in desperation mode to find specific interaction, though you are unlikely to gain full value unless you get lucky and hit something free.

Let us begin.

How to Play Expressive Iteration

Expressive Iteration is a powerful card, but it requires you to be based around the colors blue and red. Splashing either color will lead to instances of casting Expressive Iteration and lacking the correct color of mana to cast the spells you find off it. When casting your card draw spells takes the place of casting an interactive element, you will often lose the game because of it. For example, a manabase trying to play Archmage’s Charm might have trouble casting Lightning Bolt off Expressive Iteration because you play too many copies of Island, and therefore might find yourself with only one red source of mana. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be playing Expressive Iteration in your Archmage’s Charm deck, but you should have an emphasis on dual lands rather than basic Islands so that you don’t lack the crucial red mana for interaction.

Expressive Iteration also suffers from an issue of immediacy. You have to play one of the cards that turn or it disappears forever. When you hit a land, that will often take care of itself. If you miss on a land, you’ll need to find a way to cast one of those spells and put another in your hand for safekeeping. If you’re flooded on land, maybe you should hold off on casting Expressive Iteration until the pressure from your opponent forces your hand. It’s all contextual, but you should always be thinking of how best to utilize your resources, and Expressive Iteration creates a little puzzle all by itself that you must solve every single time you think about casting it.

I like to have proactive elements alongside Expressive Iteration. Having too many cards like Counterspell leads to hits from Expressive Iteration that leave something to be desired. Again, you shouldn’t discount cards like Counterspell, but you should be aware of how many cards in your deck are actually uncastable when found off Expressive Iteration. If you have a deck full of Mystical Disputes and Spell Pierces, you’ll find that your Expressive Iterations will be much worse on average than those of someone who is playing a more threat-dense archetype. Playing creatures is a great way to solve this issue, and luckily for us they just printed a few ridiculous threats that only cost one mana.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer Dragon’s Rage Channeler

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer can help generate some mana in the early turns, allowing you to cast Expressive Iteration a full turn earlier than what might be normally recommended. This helps when you’re light on lands or just need to find some piece of disruption. Ragavan also adds weight to your removal spells, as it keeps your opponent from being able to interact with Ragavan via blocking. That, my friends, is what we call “tempo,” as your removal spell becomes something more. When you add “pressure” into the mix, every piece of interaction is compounded. Think about it. Doesn’t Daze become outrageous when Delver of Secrets is attacking? Isn’t Thoughtseize a dagger to the heart when clearing the way for Stoneforge Mystic? Every cleared blocker is one step closer to victory.

The term “spinning your wheels” comes to mind here. If you’re killing your opponent’s creatures without ending the game, you’re just extending the game. You need to capitalize on removing your opponent’s pressure. You can do that in a number of ways, and with a variety of different win conditions. Expressive Iteration can help find those, but it will be beneficial in the long run if you can also easily cast them off Expressive Iteration. That means Ragavan and Murktide Regent over Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

While blue is proficient at drawing cards, having spells that simply gain card advantage are only as good as your tools for stifling your opponent’s development. Drawing a bunch of cards that draw more cards doesn’t accomplish much when you’re facing down an opposing Ragavan. Red is proficient in versatile removal, which is actually pretty incredible with cards like Expressive Iteration because they put a clock on how and when you can cast your extra cards. When your extra cards are Lightning Bolt and Unholy Heat, you can direct them to a variety of targets. When your removal spell off Expressive Iteration is Fatal Push or Path to Exile, you limit your options.

Building your deck with these things in mind will ultimately help your understanding of Expressive Iteration. You can see these principles in action when you examine the archetypes that are already taking advantage of this efficient card advantage spell. Most of the Modern decks playing Expressive Iteration look very much like old Legacy decks. Those decks were built around Tarmogoyf for the most part, but the theory was specifically that cheap threats that were good at both attacking and blocking made Force of Will and other cheap disruption much more potent. The same principles hold true here.

When to Play Expressive Iteration

I’ve heard a lot of smart people compare Expressive Iteration to Brainstorm. This is a smart comparison because it implies that the two would be very good in the same types of decks, and the way in which you use them should be somewhat mirrored. Brainstorm rewards patience. Casting Brainstorm too early can get you stuck without a way to shuffle. It is still correct to cast Brainstorm on the first turn on occasion, but rare enough that it has become somewhat taboo.

Like Brainstorm, you want to gain the most out of the card when you cast it because a “complete Brainstorm” implies shuffling away two functionally dead cards. Like Expressive Iteration, you can use Brainstorm in a number of different ways, but gaining the most out of your cards given enough time should usually be the goal. This changes when you add in another variable to the equation, like a creature with prowess or an opponent with an unanswered threat, but will ring true enough that you should bury that knowledge deep. You’d be smart to start from a place of knowing and switch things up when the time calls for it rather than hastily waste your best spell just because you didn’t want to waste mana.

When under pressure from the opponent, it is acceptable to cast Expressive Iteration to dig for necessary interaction. That pressure can come in many forms, so take into consideration what type of thing you’re digging for and how imperative it is that you find it immediately. If your opponent is playing Storm, perhaps you should dig for Inquisition of Kozilek. If your opponent has a Dragon’s Rage Channeler on the battlefield, perhaps getting a Lightning Bolt sooner is better than later. At all times, you should be considering how to handle these threats while finding creative ways to garner that extra card. It is especially difficult to make that decision when there is no land in the three cards. When there is a land, Expressive Iteration starts to look a lot more like Divination, and decisions become much easier.

Lightning Bolt Archmage's Charm

As the game goes late, Expressive Iteration will be one of your most powerful draws. Any Expressive Iteration where you can garner two useful spells will be better than an Expressive Iteration that finds a land. That is one of the reasons why it is important to have your spells be modal or have multiple functions. Lightning Bolt can go to your opponent’s dome, Archmage’s Charm can draw some cards, and Ragavan can be cast via dash or normally. All of these elements add up to having your Expressive Iteration be as good as it can be, which should be the ultimate goal when building your Expressive Iteration deck.

I want to stress that any deck playing Expressive Iteration automatically becomes an Expressive Iteration deck. In any matchup where you have time to actually play Magic, card advantage or card selection have a way of being some of the more important parts of your deck. Expressive Iteration is both simultaneously, which means we should be doing everything in our power to put it good use.

We must not forget that Expressive Iteration can also be a bridge. Hitting your land drop on the third turn when you might otherwise miss is of great importance. Being greedy and waiting too long to cast Expressive Iteration can also be your downfall. There is also much to be said for casting Expressive Iteration when you have nothing else to do. If your shields are down, you might as well go ahead and cast it. You might find the answer you need to a future problem or a threat that could hasten your opponent’s demise.

Light Up the Stage is similar to Expressive Iteration in a lot of ways. You want to cast it to find pressure, but you also don’t want to burn it too early and not be able to cast the spells you find from it. One of the most demoralizing things in the world is missing on lands and getting zero cards from Light Up the Stage. It is impossible for your Expressive Iteration to miss in the same way, as you still get to put a card into your hand, but it still hurts badly to miss a land drop in the early turns.

I say all this because I felt about Light Up the Stage the same way I feel about Brainstorm. Casting it at the earliest possible time isn’t usually correct, but finding the right spot to cast it and getting full use out of it is usually integral to your success. In all these aspects, Expressive Iteration is the same.

Where to Play Expressive Iteration

Any Izzet deck can play Expressive Iteration about the same way that any blue deck can play Brainstorm in Legacy. It is a powerful card that will usually be good enough even if your deck isn’t optimized and will occasionally be excellent in spite of any shortcomings in deckbuilding. The fact that Expressive Iteration helps you hit land drops and gives you another card besides makes it excellent in just about every archetype. However, knowing how to construct your deck to make Expressive Iteration the best it can be will ultimately yield better results and a greater understanding of how to use it.

Let’s examine some Modern decks that I believe best exemplify a “good Expressive Iteration deck.”

I like how this deck can fluctuate between aggro, midrange, and control with very little effort. Against a slower deck, a single Ragavan can make every disruption point that much more glaring. Decks like this can make great use out of Expressive Iteration because their answers are so versatile and their threats are so cheap. A single Expressive Iteration can vary wildly in power level, allowing for pockets of higher variance where you get to find two actual perfect cards for a given situation. This is mostly due to one card in particular, and in my opinion one of the best cards printed for this style of deck in recent memory:

Drown in the Loch

A counterspell is often disastrous on a card like Expressive Iteration, but Drown in the Loch doubles as a protective element that can take down an opposing threat. The versatility present in a card like Drown in the Loch is exactly the type of gameplay you want to promote when playing a card like Expressive Iteration. It covers so many bases and has uses at so many different points in the game that it makes perfect sense for a deck like this one.

This deck does a nice job of balancing those control and aggressive elements. I love the fluidity in sideboarding, and especially so with unique free spells like Chalice of the Void. On the draw against Living End and afraid they’re about to go off? Throw that Hail Mary and try to hit your Chalice of the Void before they go off. Maybe not ideal, but there is no such thing as using an Expressive Iteration in a bad way. There is no need to gain card advantage against a deck like Living End, and so there is no need to get “full value” out of a spell that will quickly lose all value.

Next up, let’s take a look at where Expressive Iteration would be bad.

Shark Typhoon

Threats like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Shark Typhoon struggle in a shell featuring Expressive Iteration because they cost a lot of mana. The one aspect of Expressive Iteration that gets lost is that you must play the exiled card immediately. When that card isn’t a land, finding ways to use that spell is difficult but integral to success. That’s why we want most of the cards in our deck to be cheap or free, so that missing a land (or casting it without needing a land) isn’t detrimental to gaining the max.


The cycle of Elementals from Modern Horizons 2 can be cast from Expressive Iteration for their evoke cost. This is a great potential use of Expressive Iteration that hasn’t been explored much. Fury is just now coming around and gaining the notoriety it deserves, and pairing it with Expressive Iteration can be quite fruitful. I would like to look at some more ways to pair those two cards together, though it will probably work best in a sideboard plan for a deck like Izzet Prowess.


In the original version of this deck, created by WaToO, Expressive Iteration was actually Opt. I think that card, while weaker on the whole, is better-suited for a deck like this. You want to sit back on your reactive spells as much as possible, and Opt allows you to do exactly that. Just because a spell is powerful and on-color does not mean it is correct to put it in your deck. It’s like trying to play Brainstorm in Merfolk. Sure, you can do it, but is it worth it? Wouldn’t something else be better?

There are more aggressive ways to put Expressive Iteration to use. Let’s explore an archetype that might not mind casting it on the second turn.

Soul-Scar Mage Monastery Swiftspear

Cheap threats are excellent with Expressive Iteration because you have more windows to cast Expressive Iteration for full value. Not only does it trigger your prowess and dig for some cheap spells, but it also allows you to find and cast threats when your opponent is interacting with you. Prowess decks thrive on using their cheap spells to create bursts of damage. If your opponent kills your creatures, your deck is just a bunch of somewhat meaningless burn and dig spells.

The low threat count means a few spot removal spells can take the wind out of our sails. Before Expressive Iteration, we could go two or three turns without finding a threat, not doing much of anything. The fact that we have a card that can dig so deep in a pinch but also work fluidly with our strategy when we’re going full steam speaks volumes.

Mutagenic Growth Gut Shot

Free spells like Mutagenic Growth and Gut Shot allow you to cast Expressive Iteration in weird spots and not mind so much when you miss your land drop. Mishra’s Bauble falls into the same category, but finding ways to play more free spells unlocks explosive combos in your Expressive Iteration. While these cards are inherently weak, they tend to be much better when they also buff your damage output with your prowess creatures. I’ve seen the kind of thing Izzet Prowess can do if left unfettered. Expressive Iteration into two free spells is terrifying.

Express Yourself

There are many ways you can play Expressive Iteration. In my humble opinion, it singlehandedly exemplifies what Izzet is all about: wild power needing complex understanding to control. Once you’ve mastered Expressive Iteration, you will be able to see all the interweavings that go on in deckbuilding. The path forward will reveal itself at all times because you understand it, and you’ve built your deck to fully take advantage of it.

A deep knowledge of your deck and the inner workings of your tools is as important as a chef understanding all the ingredients while creating a dish. Without that understanding of the individual pieces, you can never hope to create something truly magnificent. The first step in becoming a great Izzet deckbuilder and pilot now includes studying the art of Expressive Iteration. I’ve thought long and hard on these topics, trying to internalize all the principles necessary for a greater understanding of Izzet. It is sometimes difficult to compose my thoughts in such a way as to relay useful information. I hope that I have succeeded in lending you some of my knowledge on the subject of Expressive Iteration and Izzet, two subjects that I am fond of exploring. Now if only there was some way to turn this theory into practice…