The Strixhaven Championship took place last weekend, and at first glance, the big winners in Historic are the various Brainstorm decks, with Jeskai Turns and Izzet Phoenix in particular performing extremely well. However, the best performing Historic deck at the event was actually the Five Color Niv Mizzet list Autumn Burchett, Chris Botelho and myself brought, going 12-4 in the Historic rounds of the event we played! I’m going to be breaking down not only the deck, but also the process that led us to arrive at it, and some takeaways that we had on the Historic format as a whole.
Going into Historic testing, and indeed testing for the event as a whole, Autumn, Chris and I were acutely aware of the limits of what we could do as a testing group as we just didn’t have the time to test out every matchup for every potential deck. Despite often putting in as much as 10 hours of testing a day, there were very concrete limits to what the three of us could do. Luckily, Autumn and Chris are great at Magic, so we were able to circumvent that by identifying potential weaknesses and strengths of strategies and trying to explore those.
The first such strategy was, of course, Izzet Phoenix. The deck was very much a known quantity, and Autumn had played it before and was convinced of its strength. We were relatively confident the deck beat most of the other new decks that had arisen since the release of Strixhaven and the Mystical Archives, so we were left with two avenues to explore: how Phoenix fared against established decks from before the release of Strixhaven (namely Jund and Auras) or whether there was a new deck that hadn’t seen extensive tournament play that was worth exploring.
Without getting too involved in the minutia of the testing process, we emerged a few days before the event with only two decks that we really wanted to explored: Orzhov Auras, which I had been having a lot of success against Phoenix with, and Five-Color Niv-Mizzet, which was a deck Autumn had found and couldn’t seem to lose with.
This wasn’t to say we’d been unable to beat Phoenix with other decks, there were certainly cards that helped do this (Arasta of the Endless Web and Elder Gargaroth had been particularly effective), but there was certainly counterplay to all these strategies from the Phoenix side, and Niv and Auras were the only decks that had game plans that lined up well against Phoenix. The only other notable way to attack Phoenix we had come across was with a resilient combo shell of some sort, but we were unable to find one that actually worked.
At this point, I was leaning firmly toward Auras, as an established deck that seemed to be strongly favored against phoenix. The only problem with the deck was that it couldn’t seem to beat Jeskai Control, no matter how much I skewed the deck for the matchup. We were fairly convinced that Jeskai Control would have a strong presence at the Championship, as it would prey on various combo and aggro decks people might bring to fight Phoenix.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in particular was a problematic card for Auras, as its ability to get around Kaya’s Ghostform and Demonic Vigor prevented a lot of the counterplay that Auras typically has to removal, and Rest in Peace in sideboarded games seriously hurts the Auras deck’s ability to play a long game. This led us to eventually putting Auras aside for the tournament, but it’s definitely an archetype that I think was underrepresented at the Strixhaven Championship, and may be worth exploring more in the future. This was my list before I stopped working on the deck before the event.
Historic Orzhov Auras by Arya Karamchandani
With Auras out of consideration, we were pretty much locked on Niv for the Championship, but we were still struggling with the Jeskai Control matchup for this deck as well. While not nearly as lopsided as the matchup was for Auras, we still struggled with a plan for the matchup post-board, where flash threats such as Shark Typhoon and Commence the Endgame meant we often lost without ever getting the ability to resolve a Niv.
Additionally, the original build of the deck had no basics in it, so Field of Ruin was an immense problem that lost us the game immediately whenever it was drawn. The second of these problems was relatively easily solved by adding a Swamp, but there seemed to be no easy answer to the fact that our game plan of playing a five-mana creature at sorcery speed was weak to a combination of counterspells and instant speed threats. Various cards aimed specifically for the matchup, such as Allosaurus Shepherd and Chromium, the Mutable, were unable to solve the fundamental problems our deck had. With an inability to really change our game plan in a way that punished Jeskai for tapping out, we were at a loss for what to do.
It was at this point, mere hours before the deck list submission deadline, that Chris suggested Raff Capashen, Ship’s Mage. I was initially dismissive of the idea, but after testing it in a couple of matches, the card more than pulled its weight. We made a few last minute changes to the mana base, and, in classic Magic player fashion, ended up finalizing our list less than an hour before the submission deadline!
The testing between the submission and the actual event was fairly run of the mill, with Autumn, Chris, and myself spending several hours each day trying out several different sideboard configurations in various matchups. The final result of our testing was the list and sideboard plans that follow.
Historic Niv-Mizzet by Arya Karamchandani
At its core, Five-Color Niv-Mizzet is simply a control deck, with a bunch of pieces of interaction and some card advantage engines at the top end. As such, the deck divides neatly into various different types of interaction and card advantage.
The defining feature of the deck is its unique removal suite it has to play, as a result of needing them to be Niv hits. The core of the removal suite is composed of Vanishing Verse, Drown in the Loch and Lightning Helix, which are all situational but have the potential to be extremely powerful as a result. The limited nature of this removal suite is mitigated by the copious amount of discard the deck runs, which, in conjunction with the Mortality Spears, gives you answers to threats that dodge most of your removal.
After interacting reasonably well through the first few turns of the game, the deck’s next goal is to play a five-mana card advantage engine and use it to take over the game. Most often, this is Niv-Mizzet Reborn, but sometimes a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria will have to do. In the games where we do get to resolve a Niv, it’s generally sufficient to win, for while this deck may not be structured to hit five or six cards with Niv with any regularity, given that all of the deck is efficient one-for-one interaction, simply hitting two or three cards while also getting a 6/6 flyer is often going to put you far enough ahead to win the game. This is compounded by the fact that Niv is actually an incredibly resilient threat, dodging a vast majority of removal spells in the format.
In the games where you don’t draw Niv, or at least don’t draw it early, the deck has its fair share of other card advantage to allow you to win playing a game of one-for-ones, with Hydroid Krasis, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Cling to Dust and Expressive Iteration. Iteration in particular is crucial to the functioning of this deck, as it’s the only way this deck has to consistently make land drops. At the same time, the deck leverages Iteration well even when not desperately looking for land drops, as cheap removal spells and hand disruption allow the deck to often get two spells off Iteration very early in the game.
Even going into the late game, the deck manages to leverage Iteration by having it dig three cards deep to the deck’s card advantage engines, as well as letting lands often remain partial hits in the late game by putting Triomes in hand to cycle. Indeed, the Triomes greatly improve this deck’s late game in general by letting many of your lands be redraws. They also do a good deal to smooth out the deck playing five colors, which brings us to the deck’s mana base!
The mana in this five-color deck is surprisingly good, in no small part because of the Triomes, but it certainly requires a large amount of attention to detail when playing the deck. I’m going to spend this section going over the many things you need to know about this deck’s mana, starting with the most important: never trust the autotapper.
There are too many different spells you may want to leave up based on different situations, and you need to be aware of what mana is being left up at all times, as the autotapper often just defaults to leaving the most Triomes up when it can. This is particularly true when you’re casting Expressive Iteration or Niv, which could draw you spells you want to cast that turn cycle but may not be able to unless you leave up the right mana beforehand.
Perhaps the most helpful thing to be aware of is something you don’t actually have to worry about at all: the checklands with Triomes. As the only checklands in this list are of the allied color-pairs, they all enter untapped with every single Triome! The notable takeaway is to try and lead with a Triome early where you can, just because it lets so many lands enter untapped later.
Another useful shortcut to understanding the mana in this deck is understanding which combination of lands cast which spell. Luckily, we put together some spreadsheets for this very purpose! To start, here’s a spreadsheet I made that lists every spell that each Triome does not actually produce colored mana for. The second page of the spreadsheet also lists every single possible combination of Triomes in the deck, and which spells they can and cannot cast, should that be something you find useful to look through.
To go with that, here’s a slightly adapted version of a spreadsheet Chris made on land sequencing, which details which Triome followed by which other land you need to play on turn one and two respectively to be able to lead a particular spell on two mana into a different spell on three mana.
Finally, I have some general tips on this deck’s mana base that aren’t covered by what I’ve already gone over. The first is regarding the colors of mana you want in your opening hand. The deck is super hungry for black mana early, with your discard spells often needing to be cast early to have value, so by and large, most hands you want to keep will have black mana.
That said, a notable exception is hands with Expressive Iteration and mana to cast it, as that digs you far enough to likely find black mana. This is of course far from a hard and fast rule, but a good heuristic to be aware of. Conversely, green is the color of mana this deck least uses early, and is not particularly important in an opening hand. It’s also the color with the least sources in the deck, and as a result, is the color you are most likely to be missing when casting a Niv on five.
Luckily, Jegantha, the Wellspring can solve this problem, and will often let you cast Niv without finding green mana first. Indeed, Jegantha is a fantastic card in general in this deck, with the ability to cast Niv off the mana it generates alone making it a must-kill threat for most decks. With these kind words about our Elk friend, we conclude the section on mana base and come to the section of the article most people are here for: the sideboard guide!
This was the closest thing Niv had to a strongly unfavored matchup, and we had a strange and convoluted sideboard plan for it! Luckily, the deck got banned, so I deleted that entire section of this article and laughed maniacally about how Niv is now easily the best deck in the format.
This matchup is the single biggest reason to run Niv. Phoenix ran roughshod over most of the non-Turns decks at the Strixhaven Championship, but it was summarily trounced by our team, with us having a 11-2 record against it at the event!
The reason behind this is simply that our answers line up really well against their threats: Vanishing Verse cheaply answers both Stormwing Entity and Arclight Phoenix (the latter permanently), a timely Lightning Helix answers all of their threats but Crackling Drake while mitigating their ability to kill us with a flurry of early damage. Drown in the Loch is an unconditional removal spell and counterspell early in the game because Phoenix fills its own graveyard relatively quickly with cantrips.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this matchup though is how good Niv is here, not as a threat, but rather as a 6/6 flying blocker. Once a Niv resolves, Phoenix decks have an incredibly difficult time getting through it, as no single removal spell easily gets rid of it and it considerably outsizes all their creatures.
In fact, Niv is such a good blocker in this matchup that the correct play is often to not attack with it at all, instead holding it back as a blocker while you run Phoenix out of threats and eventually win by decking them. Particularly in game one, this is a relatively common occurrence, with at least a third of my victories having taken place without my Niv ever attacking. The sideboard plans are relatively straightforward, with the life loss on Thoughtseize being something of a liability and Teferi being hard to reliably protect.
Some specific cases where you may board differently than the default are as follows:
- Against Niv-Mizzet, Parun out of the sideboard, which incentivizes leaving in some number of Thoughtseize over Inquisition of Kozilek, and leaving in all the Teferis.
- Against a list with multiple copies of Aether Gust and/or no Narset, Parter of Veils, you may want to keep both Teferis as a good five-mana threat, instead cutting an Inquisition.
- While this is not tech that has been widely played, should Phoenix decks in Historic take after their Pioneer counterparts and adopt a combo-esque finish with Maximize Velocity and Crackling Drake, it may be worth bringing in Assassin’s Trophy as an additional instant speed answer to Drake.
This matchup is among the tougher ones for Niv, and is almost entirely dependent on resolving a copy of the titular Dragon.
Game 1 this is doable so long as you draw discard spells at convenient times to nab counterspells and are able to safely play a Niv on turn five. Note that in this matchup, Niv is often going to be considerably easier to resolve than Teferi, as it doesn’t get hit by Dovin’s Veto.
Post-board, your game plan is largely focused on Raff Capashen, Ship’s Mage, as it allows you to play Niv and Jegantha at instant speed, punishing opponents for tapping out for Shark Typhoon and Commence the Endgame at your end of turn, while at the same time pressuring their Teferis and Narsets. Jegantha is particularly important in this matchup as it’s a free threat that control cannot allow to stick because of the huge mana advantage it gives you.
Luckily, Drown in the Loch gives you a convenient answer to large tokens from Jeskai and allows the card to have some utility should your opponent have some number of Rest in Peace in post-board. In both pre and post-sideboard games, try your level best to avoid letting Jeskai resolve a Teferi on an empty board, as the deck has very few answers for it.
This is also among the deck’s tougher matchups, with their having the ability to quite easily out-grind our deck with Korvold, Fae-Cursed King and Trail of Crumbs. It’s also incredibly difficult to present a meaningful clock against Jund, as they generate a lot of food that can be used to keep them alive till they find a card advantage engine. The way to win this matchup is to have timely answers to their card advantage engines while presenting either chipping away at their life total with Niv or ticking up towards a Teferi ultimate.
This is a matchup that’s drastically draw dependent, as whether your answers line up with Gruul’s threats will vary game to game. They’re running a large number of multicolored threats and cards like Klothys, God of Destiny can make some games difficult, yet one-for-one removal followed by top-end is a fundamentally sound strategy against Gruul’s game plan, and boardwipes post-sideboard help shore up the awkwardness of some of our answers.
By and large, your goal in this matchup is to make it to Niv, and should you survive the turn after it resolves you should be able to win the game. Ahn-Crop Crasher is a particular issue as it prevents Niv from blocking the turn it comes down, though Embercleave isn’t as much of an issue as it’s foremost decks because Niv is large enough to trade with most creatures even equipped with a ‘cleave.
Another matchup that varies drastically based on draw, Mono-Black’s recursive early threats are hard to deal with, and make your discard incredibly bad, but most of their mid to late game threats line up extremely poorly against most of your removal, particularly Vanishing Verse.
The best of the early game creature matchups, their threats are bad against Vanishing Verse and they have no recursion. They also have little to no interaction for Niv itself, so the plan to interact one-for-one and play a large Dragon works remarkably well. Post-board, the matchup only gets better with a majority of the boardwipes we have getting in under Reidane, God of the Worthy. One thing to watch out for is Luminarch Aspirant putting a counter on three-toughness creatures, as that allows them to better fight through Lightning Helixes and Deafening Clarion.
This isn’t a matchup that has come up very often so far, but is certainly one I anticipate coming up more in the future. In testing, this matchup was relatively favored for Niv, just because of the sheer quantity of answers the deck has. The sideboard plan will vary based on the exact list, but cage shutting off Claim // Fame, Kaya’s Ghostform, Lurrus, Sentinel’s Eyes and Agadeem’s Awakening makes it worth it at least for now.
I will confess to us never having played a true mirror of this matchup, as the deck wasn’t a well known quantity, but given the Time Warp ban, with Phoenix being the most popular deck, I’d imagine that Niv will see a surge in popularity. I’d imagine the matchup will come down to resolving the first Niv, and as a result, if you want to improve the mirror I’d recommend adding more copies of cheap counterspells for Niv to the sideboard, as well as exploring the potential of bigger Dragons still, like Chromium.
I’d like to conclude this article with a few miscellaneous tips on playing the deck that didn’t have an obvious place elsewhere in this article:
- Because of the narrow nature of many of this deck’s removal spells, certain threats are particularly difficult to deal with (Klothys, Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger and Stonecoil Serpent are particularly bad). Prioritize dealing with these threats with the removal that does hit them, and if you’re looking to beat Niv, bring plenty of these cards.
- You almost always want to target a card in your own graveyard with Cling to Dust when using it as a cantrip, as you need your opponent to have cards in their graveyard for Drown in the Loch to be effective.
- Lightning Helix and Cling to Dust targeting a creature can both make Mortality Spear cost rwo mana.
And that’s everything I have to say on Five-Color Niv-Mizzet right now. I wish you the best of luck playing this deck, may your Nivs always hit five or more spells!