This past week, expert Eternal Magic player and popular Eternal Youtuber Brian Coval (i.e. BoshNRoll) reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in accepting a challenge that one of his supporters donated for: play five matches of Four-Color Zenith against Izzet Delver. He was tasked to find an expert Delver player and, fortunately enough, I fit the bill. Playing against a great player is high on my list of enjoyments and with the stakes on the table put up by his supporter, accepting was a no brainer. This is traditionally a challenging matchup for Delver, so I knew I had an uphill battle and I jumped right into thinking about the matchup, so generating that game plan will be the topic of this week.
While this is a very narrow topic on the surface, the underlying principles of this article attempt to address what I view as an important topic: how to form an effective plan in a poor matchup. Since the context in which I was doing this was very specific, I want to get out ahead and say I did not build a deck list with this matchup in mind. I thought that would be against the spirit of the challenge and even though the stakes were high, I valued the challenge itself more than the outcome. That being said, I think using the deck list that I’ve been tuning recently to form a cohesive game plan in a tough matchup was exactly in the spirit of the challenge and I was excited to have a focused goal to work on.
As of finishing this article, we played our five matches and I don’t want to spoil the outcome, as I’m not sure when Brian’s video will be released. Additionally, I recorded my half of the games and will be posting that online to coincide with his video. Be sure to follow my twitter for that, and importantly, make sure you subscribe to Brian’s Youtube Channel. He has been producing some of the best Legacy content on the internet for a couple of years now and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Thanks again, Brian!
We did not play with open deck lists and I did not know what his deck would look like before we played, but here are the lists, for reference:
Legacy Izzet Delver by Rich Cali
Legacy Four-Color Zenith by Brian Coval
What makes this a challenging matchup for Izzet Delver? Like many of the Four and Five-Color Control decks in the format, the combination of eight one-mana removal spells with a difficult-to-disrupt engine like Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath can be a lot for a deck like Izzet Delver to keep up with. With Izzet Delver moving away from cards like Spell Pierce, it’s challenging to answer their removal spells without expending a card like Force of Will since one-mana spells are notoriously difficult to Daze. This can make it fairly easy for them to stabilize the board as they continue to develop their mana and their plan.
In my experience, the Zenith deck is a bit more challenging to play against, and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that they combine the cheap removal with a more proactive strategy. By nature of playing Zenith, they play to the board a bit more and this makes their removal spells that much more meaningful.
While this might theoretically help Delver’s position by turning on their removal spells, most of the creatures in the Zenith deck blank Lightning Bolt or generate value. The fact that they play to the board also effectively counteracts Delver’s traditional counterplay in the matchup. Against most control decks, using a Court of Cunning/Narset sideboard plan allows the Delver player to have an alternative game plan that can sidestep their removal spells. This is more difficult against Zenith variants because not only do they have more creatures overall, but cards like Dryad Arbor represent uncounterable ways to take back the monarchy by surprise.
Despite all of this, Izzet Delver is not dead in the water in these matchups. There are no matchups that Delver cannot win, a fact that has essentially always been true in Legacy. In order to give yourself the best chance in a tougher matchup, you have to have a cohesive game plan that understands the fundamental tenets of how Delver wins games in those contexts.
Forming an effective plan in a matchup requires an understanding of how the two decks intersect in game play. They generally tend to rely pretty heavily on their cheap removal. It’s very easy for them to play these cards with a single mana available to play around Daze. Backing this up is the efficacy of Endurance in the matchup. This card can be a real challenge to play against. On top of this, it’s trivially easy for them to develop a robust mana base of basic lands in the early game, thus blanking Wasteland until it doesn’t really matter.
In my view, Delver’s strongest quality in the matchup is its efficiency. Most four-color decks are a bit clunky, but Zenith tends to be just a bit more so. That is tied to the nature of Green Sun’s Zenith, as adding an extra mana to its cards can make them a bit exposed to a flood of threats and one-mana spells. This means that leaning into your early threats can leave them overwhelmed, since they won’t always start the game with two or three pieces of removal. On top of this, Murktide Regent is by far the most potent creature since it can’t be managed by their creatures. As such, creature-heavy draws can force them to spend their Swords to Plowshares on a Ragavan or Delver of Secrets, opening the door for Murktide to take it home.
In the pre-board games, this translates to protecting your threats, rather than disrupting their development. Since countermagic is at a premium in this version of Izzet Delver, it’s tempting to save Force of Will to stop their Green Sun’s Zeniths. However, if you freely let their removal resolve, you start to play right into their game plan. They want the game to go longer and they have enough threats (especially with Yorion in the mix) that they will overwhelm your disruption eventually.
Depending on how developed your board is, it’s worth expending two copies of Daze on a removal spell, if the opportunity presents itself. This is a scary proposition, since you’re setting yourself behind on mana and potentially opening the door to allow an expensive Zenith to resolve. However, in order to win the pre-board games, you need to lean into your pressure and double Daze might be the best way to do it.
The post-board games are where a deep understanding of what matters comes into view. While efficiency and tempo are the key aspects of a winning Delver strategy, you still need to keep up with their development. This makes a card like Daze somewhat costly. While it does enable you to play multiple spells to their single spell, setting yourself behind on mana development can make the mid-game completely dominated by the Zenith player. While the efficient, threat-heavy starts can be the best way to take a game, the games will almost always go a bit long, even with your fastest draws. Playing from behind in the mid-game is a surefire way to create problems for yourself. As such, I think moving away from Daze in the post-board games is an effective approach.
While the early pressure is still a key aspect, it’s important to diversify the threat base, which is why I like Narset and Court of Cunning. However, as I mentioned earlier, these are not nearly as reliable here as they are against other control decks. Once again, I think developing early threats is the best way to overcome this. You have to force your opponent to interact with you, rather than develop. This opens up a window for one of these three-drops to resolve. While they don’t win the game on their own, they give you the tools to keep up with your opponent and find interaction for their board.
Narset is especially important, since it turns off Uro as a card engine. This is not only important on its face (since Uro is one of the easiest ways to lose), but also because it hurts the efficacy of common sideboard cards like Carpet of Flowers. Carpet is only really devastating when it fuels an engine, with Uro being the most common. Shutting that down greatly impacts how problematic Carpet of Flowers is, which is a nice way to counteract their plans.
A concise way to sum up my pre-board plan is as follows: defend your threats, even at the cost of two-for-one’ing yourself or setting yourself behind on board and take advantage of the fact that you can cast more spells than they can. There will be a lot of times in the matchup where it will be tough to find the right spot to push through your creatures, but that’s exactly the thing you need to keep in mind throughout the game. You will not often win a game that goes long, so reading their plays for potential weakness and finding just the right moment is going to be key.
As for a post-board plan, I think this requires a brief discussion about the deck list. First off, the slight tuning of the main deck. Again, I did not build my deck to answer this matchup knowing I was going to play against it.
However, it and similar decks have been some of the more problematic archetypes for Delver to play against in my recent experience. Decks like GW Depths have given me some difficulties as of late, and a big issue in that matchup are their creatures that dodge Lightning Bolt, just like against Four-Color Zenith. Many Delver decks have recently moved away from running multiple copies of Unholy Heat in lieu of extra Gut Shots or main deck Pyroblasts. I think shifting back towards Unholy Heat is a great way to help against multiple tough matchups at the same time.
This same logic applies to the sideboard. Since green creatures have been problematic for me, Submerge seems like a great solution. While this is primarily for other matchups, such as Elves or Marit Lage decks, it fits the bill of what makes an effective sideboard card for the Four-Color Zenith matchup. It not only keeps their larger creatures in check, it’s free, which fits into the most important aspect of the matchup: efficiency.
In general, this approach is the best one to take when tuning a deck. You want to find the card that most effectively addresses multiple problems and actually fits into the core game plan. Flusterstorm has been a bit more experimental for me lately, but the same logic applies here. I have found that spell-based combo decks, like Reanimator or Doomsday, have been able to effectively grind through countermagic when they only need to play around Force effects. Having a card like Flusterstorm allows you to trade one-for-one in those situations, and I think that’s important right now. This gives me some additional utility in matchups like the Zenith deck, since, as previously mentioned, soft permission isn’t as popular. Players aren’t playing around it as much and it’s a one-for-one way to trade with a removal spell.
This all leads me to this sideboard strategy:
Out: 3 Daze, 1 Mishra's Bauble, 2 Wasteland, 2 Lightning Bolt, 1 Gut Shot In: 2 Submerge, 1 Court of Cunning, 1 Narset, Parter of Veils, 3 Pyroblast, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Flusterstorm
This is the combination of everything I’ve talked about. Daze can keep them honest and help push through a three-mana spell, but having it too often can be costly. Wasteland and Bolt both have their moments, but they aren’t effective enough to justify in large numbers (especially with Submerge coming in). Bauble is fine, but not good late and early it might force you to run into an Endurance.
Meanwhile, all of the cards you’re bringing in serve a meaningful function. Not bringing in the full set of Pyroblast seems weird, but it’s pretty easy for them to play around since they have Green Sun’s Zenith. Long-time readers may recognize that I generally do not like Surgical Extraction in this type of matchup, since it’s really poor if they just interact with you and develop through other means. However, the Zenith deck finds Uro far more often and you’ll frequently find yourself in a situation where you have to deal with it.
I like this approach as a baseline, but I’m a very fluid sideboarder. I’ll change things up depending on how I see my opponent playing and what cards I see. In addition, a sideboard plan isn’t enough to capture what the strategy is. However, combining this with the strategy I have already discussed should be a good place to start.
I get this question a lot: “How about X planeswalker or Y creature to solve Z matchup?” It’s easy to fall into the mindset that adding a “haymaker” for a tricky matchup can swing it in your favor. That may be the case against linear decks, such as 8-Cast, where cards like Meltdown and Null Rod are massive haymakers and they lack effective counterplay to manage it. However, against multifaceted decks, such as control, I find that this quick fix doesn’t actually work and often weakens the deck, instead of strengthening it.
I think True-Name Nemesis illustrates this quite nicely. I have seen this card pick up in popularity recently and this seems like one of the key matchups people would adopt the card for. However, True-Name Nemesis is not a haymaker in the matchup, just a sticky creature. While it blanks their removal spells, it is both expensive and doesn’t go over the top of cards like Uro or a Yorion endgame. Thus, you spend time working towards resolving True-Name and they can just develop their game plan and overpower you.
Now, it’s possible to create a game plan around this, not spending early resources on cards like Ice-Fang Coatl and transforming your game plan into interacting with their late-game after resolving a True-Name. However, I think the combination of the cost of adding True-Name Nemesis (which I don’t think is particularly strong at the moment) and my perceived lack of efficacy of the plan leads me away from that direction (and this applies to splashing colors for different threats, as well).
As if it needs repeating at this point, but the most important way to solve a tough matchup is to form a game plan and develop a strategy. There are many ways to do this, but it involves understanding the fundamental qualities of the matchup. This version of Izzet Delver is among the most powerful of all time. It doesn’t require large, sweeping archetype changes in order to shift a matchup in its favor. Tuning the deck and forming a consistent strategy can be enough to help improve even some of the most challenging matchups out there.