It seems like every other set these days yields a card or two that can benefit the Delver archetype. Most of the time, these cards are being added to the back roster and expanding the options that Delver has access to. Witherbloom Apprentice, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is an example of that type of card: important to consider in certain spots, but not functioning as a strict improvement. However, despite what Apprentice might add to the archetype, it was not the most impactful card from Strixhaven on the Delver archetype. That honor belongs to a relatively innocuous uncommon called Expressive Iteration.
Readers might recall that I didn’t give this a raving review in my Strixhaven set review. It looked a bit too similar to cards like Light Up the Stage and Of One Mind, which have largely proven to be underwhelming in Legacy (shout out to Light Up the Stage, though. Gotta show respect!). However, after some early testing, it’s clear that Expressive Iteration is a cut above those other options. Today, I want to go over the card and explore what makes it different and how to best take advantage of it in Delver decks. It didn’t take too many games for me to see why it was quite a bit better than the other options and I’d like to share my findings with y’all today!
Unlike the two aforementioned draw spells, Expressive Iteration asks very little of you to get two cards off of it. In order to be efficient enough for Legacy, both Light Up the Stage and Of One Mind have significant set up costs. Both of them require you to have developed a stable threat prior to casting the spell, which is not a guarantee in most games against interactive decks. That means that the fail states of these cards are more likely to come up which is relatively costly, as Divination is not the type of card that often gets the job done in Legacy.
In contrast, because Iteration always costs two mana and is blue (which counts as upside more often than downside, in my opinion), the floor of the card is certainly higher than its predecessors. While a two-mana cantrip isn’t good enough in Legacy, it is substantially better than the fail states of the other options we’ve had access to. Expanding on that, not requiring a threat in play to be utilized means that it is easier to use this card at all stages of the game, which is certainly an upgrade.
That being said, Iteration does ask for the conditions to be right in order to maximize its effect. If you want to extract two cards out of it early, you need to be casting it on turn three when you can play a one-mana spell or find a land drop. That can make the play patterns a little awkward at times and makes cards like Daze more costly than they might otherwise be.
However, there are many situations where it’s extremely efficient at what it does. The upside of costing two mana later is that this will often let you chain into the needed removal, threats or disruption and be able to utilize them quickly enough to impact the game.
While Iteration will always return a card to your hand, thus reducing the steps required to make this a two-for-one, it’s important to make sure you can consistently use the exiled card. That means that you have to have sufficient use for extra lands, as this card is excellent at ensuring you’ll hit your land drops, and/or play a sufficient amount of proactive cards. If your deck entirely consists of reactive cards, you run the risk of not being able to play one of the exiled cards you find.
That is one of the reasons Delver is the natural home for the card. Let’s look at an Izzet list I’ve been playing recently that Kenta Hiroki (Kentaro_Hokori on Magic Online) has been doing well with Online:
Legacy Izzet Delver by Kenta Hiroki
Outside of the countermagic in Delver, all of the cards have the option of being played for some effect at sorcery speed, which at least provides the option to play the cards off of exile. Delver decks also tend to play with a large number of cheap spells, further increasing the ability to take advantage of it
Since the fail state of Iteration is relatively tame, the costs of inclusion aren’t that high. However, Iteration does ask some specifics in deckbuilding in order to maximize its impact. For instance, three-drops are more costly in this list for a few reasons. The first is that Iteration takes the role of a turn three play, as that’s the turn where you can first generate two cards off of it. In addition, casting three-mana cards off of the exile can be challenging. You’ll always have the option to put it in your hand, but it might limit your tactical options and force you to make specific, somewhat undesirable plays.
While Iteration will generally mean that you’ll have more mana in play, thus meaning it is easier to cast three-drops off of Iteration, Delver doesn’t want to have a massive amount of lands in play. I don’t think it would be a massive error to consider playing some potent three-mana spells, however many of the two-mana threats are potent enough these days (and, in fact, work extremely well with Iteration) that relying on those is going to be effective.
Expressive Iteration isn’t limited to this style of Delver or color combination. The only color requirement is that you play red, which is something that I think most Delver players should already be doing. Players have been exploring a lot of different options, from turbo-aggro strategies utilizing Monastery Swiftspear to the usual color spread of Temur and Grixis. I was personally most interested in a Grixis approach and started to take a look at the following list on stream the other day:
Legacy Grixis Delver by Rich Cali
This is very similar to the Izzet list, but the inclusion of Gurmag Angler is extremely potent. Being able to hit a powerful one-mana threat off of Iteration is excellent. My gut inclination was to include a card like Thoughtseize, as it’s a proactive spell you can play off of an early Iteration, but after some light convincing, I moved away from the idea. As some people suggested, Thoughtseize being a poor late-game card could make top-decked Iterations worse than they might otherwise be. Between that and making the mana situation rather challenging, it didn’t take much convincing to cut it from the deck.
I think there’s a lot of ways to include Expressive Iteration in Delver decks, so I don’t think these two approaches are the only ones. This is certainly what I’m going to keep working on though, as it has felt quite strong so far.
While Expressive Iteration is very potent in any matchup that cares about exchanging resources, Legacy is full of decks that don’t. This calls back to my discussion on Uro a few weeks back and Expressive Iteration shares a lot of parallels there. Spending two mana in the midgame can be extremely costly, especially since most of the interaction in Delver is reactive (this is a reason to move towards Thoughtseize in Grixis, for what it’s worth). You really need to function on an efficient axis against most combo decks and Iteration can make things clunky at times.
That being said, there are some combo strategies that bring in more grindy elements to battle Delver and Expressive Iteration can be really useful there. For instance, against various UG Omnitell decks that try to use Ice-Fang Coatl and Sylvan Library to grind Delver down post-board, Expressive Iteration can let you maintain card parity while finding disruption and pressure. That won’t really fly against a deck like Sneak and Show though, which can seriously punish you for tapping too much mana to get some card advantage.
In addition, just like Uro does for Temur, dedicating deck space to card advantage engines does eat up space that might otherwise contain disruption. While Iteration does a reasonable job finding more disruption, it’s rather slow at doing so and fast combo or aggressive strategies, such as Belcher or Dimir Shadow, can easily punish Delver in those situations. Still, at worst, Iteration is still a blue card and a two-mana cantrip, so it isn’t heinous in those matchups. Just like Uro with Temur, though, it’s absolutely worth keeping in mind as you build your deck and form sideboard plans against faster decks.
I think it’s pretty clear at this point that Expressive Iteration is the real deal for Delver. Is this a good thing? Does Delver need access to more potent tools? Probably not, but I think that’s a topic for another day. That being said, I don’t think Delver is the only place this card might shine. I could easily picture a Grixis control deck that takes advantage of Iteration quite well, and I think there might be other shells that can do the same.
I’m actually pretty excited to see if players can come up with a way to fit this into slower blue decks. This is a very fun card to play and I think it has a bright future in Legacy!