It probably does not come as a surprise to readers of my articles that I have been playing a lot with Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer since it was released a few months ago. I put off writing too much about the various Ragavan decks for a few reasons. For starters, there were a lot of new approaches to archetypes to talk about. The impact of Modern Horizons 2 did not start and end at Ragavan and there were a ton of new tools in the set to talk about. Additionally, a lot of people were writing/talking about and streaming with Ragavan, which led me to want to emphasize other cards and archetypes to capitalize on different kinds of excitement. By the time I played enough with these cards and felt comfortable enough to do some deep dives, it felt like Ragavan was knocking on death’s door and writing about it would be a futile endeavor.
In spite of the fact that my previous article was about that very topic, Ragavan decks are still at the top of the format so they still warrant evaluation. Today, I’m going to look at three of the more popular variants (Izzet, Jeskai and Grixis) and break down some of the specific advantages and disadvantages of playing them right now. While they all pretty much contain the same cards (quite literally, some of them overlap in 35 to 41 possible spells), there are some key differences that are worth exploring, especially if you’re looking to play one of these in a tournament.
As a disclaimer, I’m not going to be evaluating decks with Urza’s Saga in them. That becomes more of a conversation of “Is Urza’s Saga better in this deck, and how do you evaluate that?” rather than “Why should you choose to play one Ragavan shell over another?”, which is the question I want to address. If nothing changes with regards to bans, that’s a question I’ll turn to shortly, but for now, let’s get into the different archetypes. I’m going to start with Izzet and discuss the deck more broadly and then address Jeskai and Grixis in comparison to Izzet.
Legacy Izzet Ragavan by Rich Cali
From day one, Izzet has been the most popular and, in my opinion, the best Ragavan deck of the format. Whether you play Delver of Secrets or not, the deck has a lean, efficient and proactive game plan that can win games against any opponent. One of the benefits of this deck is that it maximizes the power of Murktide Regent, allowing it to be cast as early as turn two in certain games. This version of Izzet is notoriously difficult to hate out, since it has both the best threats and best card advantage cards in the format. On top of this, in utilizing what I call a “sideboard juke” strategy against control decks, it makes those matchups very difficult from the control side and being the spiritual successful to Delver, combo matchups can only be so bad. All of this adds up to what I see as the clear de facto best deck.
The deck is not without weaknesses, though. Among the better decks in the format, Izzet has a pretty rough Death and Taxes matchup. It has a lot of ways to blank a Ragavan and answer Dragon’s Rage Channeler. While Murktide is extremely strong in the matchup, they do have a fair amount of answers to it (such as Flickerwisp or Solitude). Post-board, things don’t really get much easier since, on top of everything else, Rest in Peace really puts Izzet in a chokehold.
In addition, while I do think Izzet is largely favored against most random decks in Legacy, I do think players have really started building their decks in ways to take advantage of Izzet quite a bit more. Random Sultai decks, like Aluren or Uro piles, can actually be difficult to play against since they have a ton of removal spells, random bodies to make Narset, Parter of Veils/Court of Cunning worse as a post-board plan and Uro to take over the game. While Izzet still has plenty of game in those situations, this is an example of one of the few weaknesses the deck has (a weakness that other versions of the deck can address better, but more on that in a bit).
Finally, the mirror match is also heavily featured in this format, and building your deck to get an edge in that matchup can be tough. There are a lot of critical stages of the game, so overloading on one type of answer can lead to you getting punished at different points in the game (i.e. Gut Shot against Ragavan might leave you cold to a DRC with delirium).
I could wax poetic about Izzet for a while (and maybe soon I’ll write an article doing just that), but here is the key point: Izzet is the deck that all other Ragavan decks need to be compared to and they must be measured in terms of a few key points. How is their matchup against Izzet? How effective are these decks at addressing the issues that Izzet has? Are you sacrificing other popular matchups for the addition of other colors?
With all that in mind, let’s see why you’d play a different variant.
Legacy Jeskai Ragavan by Rich Cali
Different versions of Jeskai have been relatively popular since the beginning and this is for good reason. Swords to Plowshares is well positioned in Legacy right now. It answers all of the key threats out of Izzet which is a meaningful advantage in Ragavan mirrors. Prismatic Ending is also an absurd removal spell in Legacy and having access to it shores up so many situations you might find yourself in. On top of this, being able to support Karakas in the main deck is really nice at the moment. Finally, using planeswalkers to diversify the game plan is pretty effective at the moment, and gives Jeskai a better game one matchup against the control decks of the format, while occasionally just locking out combo decks with Narsets being played ahead of schedule due to Ragavan.
Assessing this deck’s Izzet matchup is weird. On the one hand, playing Swords to Plowshares and a variety of slower, more powerful cards provides a clear advantage in games that go long (as they tend to do against Izzet). However, Jeskai has a substantially more exploitable mana base and playing against an extremely lean, efficient and powerful deck that runs four Wastelands can easily lead to games where you cannot cast your spells.
Izzet also has the ability to pressure Jeskai’s removal spells in very specific ways because of the dash ability of Ragavan. This might leave you having to use a Swords to Plowshares too early, thus exposing you to Murktide Regent. In addition, flooding on non-Lightning Bolt removal, as Jeskai tends to do, might leave you cold to post-board plans that involve Narset from their side. Overall, I think it’s slightly Jeskai favored, but it’s not as much of a runaway as it might look.
Jeskai does have other advantages, though. Namely, the Death and Taxes matchup is far better. Prismatic Ending answering Aether Vial is a big deal, and combining a lot of cheap removal with planeswalkers is a tried and true strategy. When it comes to other matchups in Legacy, it is a bit hit or miss.
On the one hand, having cards like Prismatic Ending provides Jeskai the ability to answer cards Izzet would not be able to, such as Chalice of the Void. On the other hand, trimming on Dazes and Wasteland means that those decks aren’t going to be facing down the same kind of brutal disruption Izzet is known for, which is a knock against Jeskai. I think this will require assessing specifically what other decks you might expect (for instance, I’d rather play Jeskai if I expect a lot of Uro decks and I’d rather play Izzet if you’re going to play against a lot of combo).
Overall, as it is built, I think Jeskai is a very solid alternative to Izzet. Don’t overestimate your Izzet matchup, though, as it isn’t as favorable as people have suggested.
Legacy Grixis Ragavan by Rich Cali
Grixis started to pick up more popularity when Matthew Vook (aka Ozymandias17 on MTGO) posted a few finishes in Legacy Challenges online. In more ways than the Jeskai variant, this is an Izzet deck that is specifically designed to address the Izzet matchup. Baleful Strix is an artifact that facilitates delirium while also generating some value and blocking every creature in their deck. Specifically, it helps keep Murktide Regent in check and contributes to letting you grind them down over time. Snuff Out is the other inclusion that’s pretty awesome here as a way to kill Ragavan on turn one while playing around Daze, kill Murktide later in the game and act as a free spell to find off of Expressive Iteration.
While this deck isn’t built to fully take advantage of black sideboard cards as it stands, I think that is another advantage of playing Grixis. Cards like Plague Engineer can be clutch in the right matchups (and especially because I have experienced an uptick in cards like True-Name Nemesis out of Delver, which is difficult for traditional Izzet versions to answer). The black cards have the potential to really help against decks like Death and Taxes, which can be a tough matchup. On top of this, cards like Thoughtseize can really help against combo decks right now, especially since most of them are not prepared to play against that card at the moment.
The question then becomes what is the downside of playing this Grixis deck? As with Jeskai, one of the big downsides of Grixis is that the mana base is more exploitable. While Underground Sea and Badlands do function as Island and Mountain would in Izzet, most Izzet decks have moved away from playing basics because they can be a significant liability. For this reason, playing against Izzet can be difficult at times, in spite of the efficacy of the black cards in the matchup, because sometimes you just won’t be able to cast your spells.
This ties together with Grixis being a bit more clunky than present-day Izzet lists, since Baleful Strix is a lot slower than cards like Mishra’s Bauble (while Snuff Out is less clunky than Unholy Heat, it’s reactive, so you can’t efficiently develop as well). This means that Izzet can often take advantage of its efficiency and take over the early game before Grixis can really find its footing.
In addition, while Baleful Strix does address the Murktide problem, my experiences (from both sides of this matchup) was that Murktide was such a huge threat that relying on a creature that can be Bolted, even if it was generating card advantage along the way, is a serious liability. That being said, I do think Grixis has a better matchup overall against Izzet than Jeskai or Izzet, if only by a little bit.
As this deck is built right now, I have not found that any other matchup is made better through the inclusion of these black cards. Losing the Court of Cunning/planeswalker plans does hurt the control matchup and being less efficient at enacting your own plan makes a lot of random matchups worse. Baleful Strix does not have as much utility as it has in the past with decks like Grixis Control, circa 2018. In non-Izzet matchups, it has really just felt like a poor threat/cantrip hybrid, which isn’t exactly where I want to be at the moment.
I think if your goal is exclusively to improve your matchup against Izzet, Grixis is a fine choice in that regard, although I don’t think you’re gaining as much as it might seem on paper. However, I think it’s sacrificing too much in other matchups with how the deck is built at the moment. I think simply splashing for these six black cards isn’t the direction I want to go. Instead, I would want to look at the ways that black sideboard cards can improve tough matchups for Izzet. I don’t think Grixis lacks the ability to be a great deck (which is evidenced by it having a number of successful places over the past few months), but I think taking full advantage of the black cards is important for the archetype.
Izzet is still the best deck, so it’s difficult to suggest playing anything else for a Legacy tournament. However, I think if you expect a lot of mirror matches, turning to one of these two archetypes can give you an advantage there. I think the Jeskai deck is quite well developed right now and the way the main deck is built feels quite strong. I think there’s still a lot of development to be done with Grixis, though. However, I think if you put in the time, tune the archetype and can accurately predict the metagame of an event, Grixis can yield great dividends.
To be clear though, all of these decks play basically the same cards, give or take some colors. You’re not going to go too wrong playing any of them. As I used to say about the Delver decks of the past, pick the one that you enjoy the most and it’s probably going to be fine.