Standard Izzet control decks, often with a splash for a third color, were the dominant archetype at the Innistrad Championship, with many teams, including ours, bringing a version of it. What sets Izzet apart from most Standard decks in the recent past is just the sheer amount of play to it, particularly in mirrors. Our team brought a list that ended up being positioned quite poorly, particularly in mirrors, yet we were able to do quite well, since the main product of our testing was not our specific deck list, but rather the understanding of the archetype and the play patterns of its various matchups.
Rather than provide another run-of-the-mill list and sideboard guide, I figured I would instead provide a breakdown of what makes Izzet tick, starting with all the possible cards the deck can include and ending with an overview of a few key matchups.
Unexpected Windfall is indicative of the main principle behind this deck – mana equals cards. Against aggressive decks, it gives you the mana to play haymakers like Lier, Disciple of the Drowned or Alrund’s Epiphany to take over the game.
In the mirror, Windfall, once resolved, gives you two extra mana, which allows you to represent an extra counter or Galvanic Iteration. This means can spend more mana than your opponents can because you’re representing extra interaction. This cascades into letting you resolve more card advantage and more Windfalls (often with Iteration), turning into a larger mana advantage and therefore even more cards.
Galvanic Iteration is the biggest card advantage engine in the deck, often drawing as many as four cards off a single flashed back Iteration. The potential to combine it with Unexpected Windfall gives you a ton of cards and mana, a combination that puts you ahead in almost every matchup.
It’s also key against any deck with Galvanic Iteration and Epiphany because it lets you copy a counterspell to counter two Epiphanies with just a single counterspell. Galvanic Iteration is also incredibly versatile as a card advantage tool that not only works with all your other card advantage spells, but also with removal to double up as extra interaction.
Expressive Iteration is important as cheap card advantage against aggressive decks. More expensive options like Behold the Multiverse get clunky against aggro, particularly with cards like Thalia and Reidane taxing your card advantage to be near uncastable.
In aggressive matchups you just want to interact as efficiently as possible, and Expressive Iteration is the cheapest and most efficient card advantage spell we have, both in the early and late game. It is, however, something of a liability in Izzet mirrors. On the draw, tapping down for it on turn three allows an opponent to resolve a Windfall, and even a turn four Iteration lets them Windfall in response as you need to cast iteration before making your land drop. It’s similarly a liability in the late game as well, since tapping mana main phase in the mirror is always awkward, and it doesn’t pair well with Galvanic Iteration.
The opposite of Expressive Iteration, Behold the Multiverse is excellent in the control mirror and a liability against aggro. In the former case, it’s instant speed and pairs really well with Galvanic Iteration. It also plays really well with Teachings of the Archaics, removing a card from your hand without going down a card, and plays really well against discard, dodging Duress and allowing you to punish an opponent who taps out for Galvanic Iteration and Go Blank. Unfortunately, it’s a little too inefficient against aggro decks to run too many copies of.
Memory Deluge combines the worst parts of Behold the Multiverse and Expressive Iteration with close to none of the benefits. It’s clunky against aggro and tapping four mana at instant speed is also a huge liability in Windfall mirrors. Additionally, spending seven mana to flash it back is extremely bad against Divide by Zero.
Lier’s primary purpose in the deck is as an extremely efficient card advantage engine against aggressive decks. Most of your card advantage requires spending mana on cards several times, and the time it takes to do that is often the window in which you lose against aggro. In contrast, Lier is a one-time five-mana investment, that at the very least gives you a 3/4 blocker, and on subsequent turns lets you bury your opponent in free card advantage by letting you cast a lot of extra removal spells without spending mana to draw them.
Against control it’s a lot less potent, as it’s an expensive sorcery speed card, but can do a good job putting you farther ahead on cards if you’re already up on mana. It’s worth noting that the “can’t be countered” text against Epiphany decks is not actually a huge issue, as you can always use Divide by Zero on opposing Epiphanies, or, if all else fails, flash back a counterspell and then hold priority to bounce or remove your own Lier before the counterspell resolves.
Go Blank is important to mention as the only proactive piece of card advantage. It lets you take over a game in a way drawing cards doesn’t, as your opponent will no longer be able to threaten powerful combinations of spells. That said, it’s something of a liability against lists with Behold the Multiverse, because that can be used to recoup cards after you’ve tapped down for Iteration and Go Blank. When combined with Iteration, it’s also something of a liability against Divide by Zero, since Dividing a copy essentially counters it while putting an extra card in hand to discard.
Easily the most important piece of interaction in the deck, Divide by Zero also frequently doubles as card advantage by letting you get Teachings of the Archaics. It’s a main deck counterspell that is serviceable against aggro, and gets some tool or other that’s always useful, with Teachings being excellent in card advantage-based matchups, and Mascot Exhibition being a great way to go over the top of aggressive decks.
It has the bonus upside of working through Lier and interacting with spells that can’t be countered. It’s worth noting that you will infrequently get Environmental Sciences, since most Izzet decks run 28 or 29 lands (including MDFCs).
Fading Hope is important against Mono-Green, but slightly suboptimal against Mono-White, since their threats are cheap to replay, and you’re often fighting them on card advantage. It’s serviceable in the mirror and midrange matchups game one, both as a cheap way to protect Lier and to interact with Hullbreaker Horror.
Fine against Mono-Green and Mono-White, stellar against neither. Serviceable in the mirror but it doesn’t hit horror, and is expensive if drawn late.
Excellent against aggressive decks but not hitting Dragons makes it awkward in the mirror. It can also be awkward against Faceless Haven.
Life loss is awkward but having a catch-all removal spell is great, making it at least decent everywhere.
Good against Mono-Green and serves as protection for Goldspan Dragon in the mirror, but very bad against Mono-White.
A good catch-all answer that is excellent against Goldspan Dragon, but it being three mana makes running multiple copies clunky. Even the first copy is less efficient than other black removal, often leading to it getting cut altogether.
Excellent against Mono-White, but often awkward against Mono-Green and dead in the mirror. It can, however, be useful in any non-mirror matchup by combining it with Galvanic Iteration.
These are bad, don’t play them.
Excellent in the mirror, where hitting Galvanic Iteration can often be crippling in the long game. Often, if an opponent tries to protect their Galvanic Iteration with counters, they’ll end up having to waste the original Iteration. Hitting Unexpected Windfall and Divide by Zero can also be really strong in a long game. However, not hitting Goldspan means relying solely on Test of Talents could be a problem. While hitting Alrund’s Epiphany is theoretically impactful, for the most part someone going for Epiphany means the game is ending one way or the other, and exiling other copies from an opponent’s deck is not all that important.
Important as an extra piece of interaction to counter Goldspan, making it an excellent card to have some number of in the sideboard in conjunction with Test of Talents. However, it doesn’t have the same threat level as test in the long game, and can’t be used to defend your threats, so relying on it as your only counterspell can cause issues.
Cheapest way to force through your own threats, and is excellent in conjunction with Lier as a one-mana spell to keep it safe. Information on your opponent’s hand can also prove extremely important, letting you know when you can safely go for it. It does suffer from not being able to hit Goldspan and often not being all that relevant in a long game where both players are drawing a lot of cards.
Alrund’s Epiphany is notable as a win condition that, in the mirror, warps the way your opponent has to play. Other win conditions may sometimes put a player far ahead if they resolve and live a turn, but if a copied Epiphany resolves, the game is very likely just over on the spot.
Epiphany existing puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Izzet decks to run it as a win condition. In a pseudo mirror, if a deck has Epiphany and the other does not, the deck without Epiphany is forced to avoid tapping down on their own end step, to ensure there are multiple counters held up for copied Epiphanies. This allows the deck with Epiphany to more aggressively resolve copies of Unexpected Windfall at end of turn, which will eventually give them a large enough mana advantage to win the long game. In contrast, the player who doesn’t have Epiphany can’t afford to be more aggressive at the opponent’s end step, because Windfalls cast at end of turn can be more safely countered if there’s no threat of copied Epiphanies on the next turn.
Epiphany does have its share of downsides as top-end, most notably that it causes an overreliance on Galvanic Iteration and is less powerful than some options against aggressive decks. That said, the impact it has in mirrors makes running a version of this deck without it likely incorrect.
While Alrund’s Epiphany does a good job punishing players for tapping low late in the mirror, Goldspan Dragon fulfils a similar function in the midgame by generating a lot of mana, particularly in conjunction with Unexpected Windfall.
While Dragon has been something of a liability against Disdainful Stroke in the past, Hullbreaker Horror has made stroke less of a catch-all answer, forcing a lot of decks to run creature removal instead, which is a lot worse against Goldspan Dragon. Against non-Izzet decks, Goldspan Dragon functions similarly to Unexpected Windfall, acting as a ramp spell and generating mana to let you cast multiple spells in the mid-game to stabilize.
Hullbreaker Horror is a top-end threat in the same role as Epiphany – an expensive card that seeks to end the game near-instantly. Against aggressive decks, Horror is the superior option of the two, particularly against Mono-Green, where their removal is rarely able to actually kill Horror and it goes over the top of anything they can do.
That said, despite being an uncounterable threat, Horror is a huge liability against other Izzet decks. The largest issue with it is that tapping down at the end of your opponent’s turn in this matchup has a high cost, with it often letting your opponent get ahead on cards and mana by resolving multiple copied Windfalls. Horror also lines up poorly against interaction in these mirrors, with Divide by Zero doing an excellent job answering it, and Fading Hope working as a cheap answer that sets the person casting Hhorror extremely far behind on mana. While Horror theoretically protects itself from removal, by the point of the game where it can be safely cast in the mirror, bouncing a removal spell isn’t all that much of a setback, while bouncing your own Horror is still extremely mana intensive and likely leaves you vulnerable.
Horror does still serve some purpose in control mirrors though, functioning as another way to actually close out the game when ahead on mana, and also both forces opponents to respect it as well as sometimes punishing them for a removal/threat suite that is soft to Horror.
Smoldering Egg, along with Sedgemoor Witch and Brutal Cathar, is one of a set of early threats out of the sideboard against aggro that take over the game if unanswered. While Egg has historically been extremely good against Mono-White in particular, it suffers a little as the only one of these options that dies to Valorous Stance, which is a piece of removal that aggro decks can afford to leave in post board thanks to its versatility. This doesn’t make Egg a bad option, as having a Mono-White player spend a turn early removing your threat is generally good, however, it does make it slightly less backbreaking than the other options in this slot.
Egg also used to see play as a powerful tool in control mirrors before Crimson Vow, but Hullbreaker Horror has made Egg much worse in this slot. Not only is Horror bouncing Egg a fairly large swing, but Horror also incentivizes control players to play more Fading Hopes and removal post-board, making Egg less impactful.
Witch is likely the premiere option in this spot, a creature that dodges stance out of Mono-White, while buying you a lot of time by generating a stream of blockers. It has the advantage of being serviceable against both Mono-Green and the mirror as well, though far from perfect in either spot. It’s weak against trample out of Mono-Green and not very impactful off-curve in the mirror, particularly when compared to other top-end on offer.
The most aggro-oriented of these options, Brutal Cathar does an excellent job taking over the game against Mono-Green and Mono-White, but is completely unplayable outside of these matchups. Since the deck plays largely at instant speed, and plays a lot of cheap spells, it’s very easy to get into a play pattern of turning it to night every other turn, and then flipping it back to day to exile an additional creature every other turn.
Cyclone Summoner is worth mentioning only as a sideboard win condition, and only against Mono-Green at that. Summoner is the best tool in the format against Mono-Green, allowing you to very effectively go over the top and easily turn the corner, but has the disadvantage of being almost completely useless everywhere else.
The guiding principle behind this matchup is that Izzet plays essentially as a control deck, trading one-for-one until you run them out of cards. Mono-White has precious little card advantage, so you should generally be able to pull ahead in a long game, particularly with cards like Lier, Cinderclasm and Sedgemoor Witch getting you several cards worth of value. The primary way you lose this matchup is by having too much clunky and inefficient top-end, and for this reason you want to board out all of your really expensive cards (namely Alrund’s Epiphany and Hullbreaker Horror).
Despite being an aggressive deck, the Mono-Green matchup plays out extremely differently from Mono-White, with Izzet playing more like a combo deck than a control deck. Rather than cutting your top-end, you’re looking to ramp into powerful seven-mana plays like Epiphany, Horror and Cyclone Summoner and go over the top of Mono-Green in the mid and late game. You instead want to cut midgame threats and excess card advantage, looking to interact efficiently early, ramp in the midgame and then have a few powerful cards take over the late game.
The most important takeaway for this matchup is how important mana is. With the amount Galvanic Iteration rewards the player who gets ahead on mana, you’re strongly incentivized to avoid giving your opponent an opening to cast Windfall early. This means you have to avoid tapping down Behold the Multiverse or Memory Deluge on the end of their turn, and avoid tapping out The Celestus and Expressive Iteration on turn three on the draw, as it gives your opponent a window to resolve a main phase Windfall while you don’t have a counterspell up.
As a corollary to this, take any opportunity you get to resolve a Windfall, main phase or otherwise. Since Windfall gives you mana back, tapping out for it on your turn will still leave you able to interact on your opponent’s turn. Additionally, your opponent is unlikely to make actually spend the mana from the Treasures without tapping down on their turn again, and if they do go for a main phase Windfall which you counter, they get set even further back by going down on cards as well.
Other than getting ahead on mana with Windfall and using that to slowly eke out a larger advantage, the main way this matchup ends up playing out is one player having a well-timed threat that the other doesn’t have an answer for. The threat in question is most frequently Goldspan Dragon, since the mana it provides frequently cascades into an insurmountable advantage very quickly, but other threats such as Sedgemoor Witch, Smoldering Egg, Hullbreaker Horror or even an Iterated Go Blank can be backbreaking if the other player’s hand doesn’t line up well.
Unfortunately, the cost of tapping low for these threats in the midgame can often be too high. Letting an Iterated Windfall or Epiphany resolve can end the game, but they do mean that the game isn’t completely over once one player has a mana advantage, even if outs may be particularly slim sometimes.
With that, I’ve covered all I have to say about Standard Izzet decks! While there are other matchups and other cards that could be discussed, the ideas I’ve covered should be enough to give you a good understanding of the archetype, and the ability to play it well at a reasonably high level. So good luck, and happy iterating!