Another theme week's here, and this week we're taking a look at one of the most interesting - and popular - guilds of Ravnica, the Izzet League. What can we learn from them - and about them? The article also has my first take at a dedicated Standard list for this site.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how it's sometimes best to paint within the lines, follow the rules, and prefer the "tried and true" reliable methods of doing things. That is how things look through the narrow visor of a law-abiding Azorius. But this week, it's time to strap on the multi-lens goggles of an Izzet experimenter and appreciate all of the nuances available to us. I'm going to talk about how the quirky Izzet play in Return to Ravnica limited, what we can learn from our favourite mad scientists, in Magic and in life, and round out the article with a little lateral thinking on the current Standard format as I experience it.
How does Izzet play?
I've gotten the impression that the Izzet League was one of the hard guild decks to "crack" during the first days (or weeks) of the Return to Ravnica limited format. While a lot of booster packs have been opened since then, and a lot of people have had a lot of ideas and impressions of how the format plays out, I still think that it's worth going over the many intricate parts that are sorted in the "Blue", "Red" and "Blue-Red" boxes of cards from this set and how to glean an overview of the almost innumerable permutations that you can put these cards together in.
It's more or less well-known that one of the easiest ways to construct the identity of a limited deck is through uncommons, and Izzet is certainly not exception: There are many uncommons with unusual or unique effects in Izzet, which can reward drafters and deckbuilders for going in a certain direction. A few of the most important (and powerful) of these effects are repeatable damage, repeatable copying of spells, and the ability to push through a lot of attackers in a big alpha-strike.
Many of these effects obviously change your evaluation of the common cards (and the less central uncommons) available to you, both directly and derivatively. As an example, Inaction Injunction becomes more attractive with Nivix Guildmage because it is cheap and copying it add significant value. Because Nivix Guildmage benefits from your spells being cheap, though, he also indirectly synergizes with Goblin Electromancer. In the same way, Teleportal synergizes directly with cost-effective glass cannon attackers like Gore-House Chainwalker and Cobblebrute and therefore fits in many of the same decks that want Pursuit of Flight.
Keeping an overview of all these synergies can be somewhat complicated, and the finer art of it is definitely something you need develop as much by practice as by reading on it. That said, though, there are still rules of thumb that you can take away from this when drafting Izzet. If your deck is leaning towards being a fast and aggressive deck, cards like Civic Saber, Pursuit of Flight and Teleportal (or its pauper cousin, Chemister's Trick) go up in value, whereas a slower Izzet deck is more likely to run cards like Pyroconvergence, Lobber Crew and Explosive Impact (at least in multiples). The key here is to notice the cards that function well with both of these classes of cards, as those are bound to be high picks in almost any Izzet deck. The premier Izzet commons are, arguably, Frostburn Weird (picked very highly because it can slot into Azorius or Rakdos as well) and Goblin Electromancer. Another common that plays an important role in both of these decks (as well as in a lot of others) is the mono-blue Voidwielder, and with all of its incidental damage, an Izzet deck is also very likely to benefit from picking up a Traitorous Instinct or two.
Izzet as a guild in limited offers a whole lot of power if you are able to solve the riddle of what exactly your deck is trying to do and how.
What can we learn from the Izzet?
The Izzet are relentless inventors and explorers of possibilities that others can only fathom. While there is a time and a place for traditional, in-the-box thinking (as we touched on two weeks ago), there is definitely a merit to trying something new and radical. And that's what being Izzet is all about!
A lot of people look at achievements such as the recent Pro Tour win by a certain Cifka (with a certain combo deck, "Eggs") as things of another world. They praise the creativity and originality of the man who "broke" the format of that tournament as a radical paradigm shift, something only a genius could have imagined.
These people are the same people that sometimes complain that they "never get any good ideas". That's simply not true. Everyone has the capability to think up something that tackles a problem from a new and interesting angle or turns a situation on its head. Sure, some are better at it than others, but that is mainly due to the same thing as almost every other significant difference in skill between people: Practice. Practice. Practice.
Now that does not sound like a very Izzet mantra, but it is: Practice getting good ideas. How do you know what ideas are good? Try them out! Try something new, whatever strikes your fancy or sounds exciting, be it taking an acting class in college, travelling to somewhere you have never been before, or putting together a brand new Standard deck (more on that last one later!). You'll find that the more you practice thinking outside the box, the easier it comes to you. I - like Mark Rosewater - am a big fan of Roger van Oech's "A Whack on the Side of the Head", a book on creative thinking, but you don't need to read anything like that to get good at it, even if it can be of assistance. What you need most is to exercise that most vital of muscles, the brain.
A word of caution, though: It can be easy (and a lot of fun) to "experiment" by doing all sorts of whacky stuff in drafts and games without actually taking anything away from it. That is not the purpose of the epic experiments of the Izzet: We are doing all of this to learn something about the format that we are working within. Don't be afraid to test off-beat ideas, but be sure to actually think about what you can take away from the experiments that fail (as well as those who succeed), be it a new sideboard technology for an already-existing deck or a way to break a mirror-match in another format open wide. Or a turn-two kill in Modern. As long as you're learning.
Sign-Off: Standard Deviations
One of the most prevalent cards in the current Standard meta-game is the all-star creature Thragtusk. It seems to me that the presence of this creature alone warps the metagame considerably: Either you're playing a deck that is aggressive enough to push an opponent fast enough to kill before they can gain full (or any) value off the powerful five-drop or you are playing a control deck slow enough that the opponent's 5 life (and a creature) ends up not mattering, in which case there is a considerable chance that you are running some number of copies of the card yourself.
But is there another way to deal with this card? An answer that does not let the opponent just milk it for all the value its juicy rules text promises, while simultaneously standing a chance against the prominent decks in the metagame? If we can't beat it, can we join it - or make it join us?
Two of my favorite Standard-legal vampires say yes! Sorin and Olivia both present profitable answers to Thragtusk, a rare product in high demand. But what kind of deck could we build around these cards that can handle the prevalence of Red and Black-Red aggressive decks as well as the glacially slow controlling decks that rely on Jace, Architect of Thought and Tamiyo, the Moon Sage to hold down the fort in concert with spells like Supreme Verdict and Azorius Charm until they can land an emblem that gains them unlimited spells or simply put 24 power worth of angels onto the battlefield and keep up counter mana?
Here is my take at a White-Black-Red Standard deck built around these two noble members of the vampire race:
Without actually having played with this deck apart from a bit of goldfishing on Cockatrice (being mostly a Limited player in addition to a student, I haven't quite been able to convince myself to throw the $3-400 that the deck would probably cost after it), I believe this has the necessary tools available to tackle both the Thragtusk decks (our trumps, Sorin and Olivia, a killer couple!), the controlling decks (Sorin is a powerful threat that's hard to remove, Dreadbore works wonders against a ticking Tamiyo, it's hard to trade profitably with Lingering Souls when you're dealing in board-wipes, and Thundermaw Hellkite can eat a planeswalker - or opponent - out of nowhere) and the aggressive decks (Pillar of Flame at 1, Mortars and Dreadbore at 2, and a strong stabilizing play in Sorin which can also win back a bit of life if he sticks around). It's possible that the Oblivion Rings should just be maindecked, as they're our only real answers to enchantments like Detention Sphere, and the Knights in the sideboard could very well be the wrong color based on your local metagame (mine still features at least one black Zombie-deck). The Rakdos Charms are great against reanimation shenanigans as well as any random artifact contraptions that might pop up, and if you really want to hate out decks that revolve around a single card (like Thragtusk or Entreat the Angels), there's always Slaughter Games. The two last Bloodline Keepers are there for threat density against a controlling deck - I really like the card in this shell since transforming it, possibly even in the turn you play it, should be able to give you that extra punch against a control deck digging for a Terminus.
Let me know what you think of the deck or if you decide to try it out, and any other feedback on the subject! You can reach me at @Lobster667 on Twitter or leave your comments on this page and I'll be sure to see them!
Until next time,
Marcus / @Lobster667.