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Beating Izzet in Pauper

When blue decks have access to powerful engines they will rise to the top of the Pauper metagame. Mystic Sanctuary is the latest card in this long, illustrious line. The ability to pick up the land with Deprive or Tragic Lesson, and then get back the same spell, provides blue decks a suite of cards that can dominate the mid and late game. The decks making best use of this package are all Delver style decks. To be clear when I say “Delver style decks” I am talking about spell heavy blue based control decks that lean on cantrips and countermagic. While these decks are often associated with Delver of Secrets the card is far from ubiquitous in Pauper these days. It may be more appropriate to describe them as Spellstutter Sprite decks. 

Regardless, the printing of Mystic Sanctuary gave these decks exactly what they needed to rise to the top of the current Pauper landscape. These are the best decks for Counterspell and running a full four presents a way to interact with the Ghostly Flicker loops of Tron. The ability to rebuy Tragic Lesson gives these decks a way to keep up with the card flow of an untouched Monarch. Due to their rise it has become important to understand how to fight these decks. In order to do that we have to know our enemy. Today I want to focus on the three main Izzet varieties of these Mystic Sanctuary decks.

Pauper Izzet Faeries Deck List - Blinkmoth-Nexus, Finalist, May 23 Pauper Challenge

Pauper Izzet Delver Deck List - Kasa, Top 4 May 23 Pauper Challenge

Pauper Izzet Faeries Deck List - Modern_Monkey, Top 8 May 23 Pauper Challenge

These builds have a few things in common. They all run Augur of Bolas, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Spellstutter Sprite. Brainstorm and Preordain are present to smooth draws find high impact cards. These decks all have the late game engine of Mystic Sanctuary and Tragic Lesson and the soft lock of pairing the same land with Deprive. They all run Counterspell

It helps to think of these decks on a spectrum. The versions with Delver of Secrets are the most aggressive -but they are far from aggro decks – while the versions with only 12 creatures are more firmly in the control camp. The general game plan of Izzet is to keep pace in the early game before turning the corner with their card advantage and plinking an opponent to death with faeries and ninjas. 

Ninja of the Deep Hours is a supplemental card advantage engine in these decks. It can get extra uses out of Augur of Bolas, Spellstutter Sprite, and Faerie Seer while also keeping the Izzet player’s hand full. An unanswered Ninja can bury an opponent under a mountain of cards. Part of playing against Izzet is understanding how many hits you can reasonably take before the game is all but lost. 

So how do you beat these decks?

The first step is understand which version you are up against. While there is a lot of overlap you can make an educated guess based upon their early plays. For example, a turn one Delver of Secrets lets you know they’re running at least three and potentially four copies. If it is turn three and a Faerie Seer hasn’t shown up it is reasonable to put them on the creature light version. That being said the biggest difference in approach is determined by whether or not they have Delver.

Delver of Secrets changes the texture of the game. Once it flips Insectile Aberration presents a relatively fast clock when backed up with counter spells and Lightning Bolt. An early Delver has to be mitigated lest it take over the game. It is far easier to remove its less threatening form and sharing one toughness with both Faerie Seer and Spellstutter Sprite means that cards that can handle one toughness creatures goes up in value. Cards like Fire//Ice, Electrickery, and Cuombajj Witches can disrupt the blue deck’s board development. You want to either present a persistent way to handle these creatures – think Prodigal Sorcerer style cards – or ones that can deal with multiple small creatures – like Electrickery. A non-exhaustive list of persistent effects include:

 

Prodigal SorcererProdigal PyromancerFireslingerSparksmithScattershot ArcherCuombajj WitchesWeatherseed FaeriesViridian LongbowPestilence

Meanwhile if you’re looking for more one-shot style cards you have the following:

 

ElectrickeryArc LightningTwin BoltChandra's PyrohelixFire // IceShriveling RotSuffocating FumesAerial VolleyTake DownHoly LightCrypt Rats

These cards work because you are not trading one-for-one with the blue deck. Rather you are trying to leverage using one of your resources to take out at least two of theirs. Despite a high spell quality their creatures are largely fragile game one and forcing them to waste resources protecting their threats can put you in a position to capitalize on these diminished resources in the mid-game.

Against the Delver builds you need to be able to survive Delver hits. This could mean removing it early or trading for it with Battle Screech or Kor Skyfisher. The thing Delver is best at in these builds, aside from dealing damage, is eating removal that would be better spent on Ninja of the Deep Hours or Spellstutter Sprite. If you are able to remove or mitigate Insectile Aberration you can use the tactics described below for combating Izzet in the latter stages of the game.

The Izzet Decks control the game via counter spells and cheap removal. Being able to sidestep at least one of these, if not both, is hugely important. Let’s use Young Wolf as an example. While hardly impressive, Young Wolf can eat a removal spell and come back for more. Much like using your two-for-ones on their creatures, forcing the Izzet player to expend two resources on one threat leaves them with fewer options later in the game. Young Wolf is also cheap enough that it can be deployed around countermagic. 

Dealing with removal is the easier task. The goal here is to present threats that Lightning Bolt and Skred have a hard time handling. Guardian of the Guildpact might be an all-star here but suffers from the fact it is hard to resolve a four drop against Izzet. Instead, look for cheaper options like Brindle Shoat, which can leave behind a threat, or Mother Bear, which can bring two along to the party. The same principle applies to Squadron Hawk and Battle Screech. River Boa might be the gold standard for a resilient threat against decks packing Islands as it can shrug off most removal thanks to regeneration. 

These cards are all cheap enough to play around countermagic. Trying to determine which counters the Izzet player has in hand is hugely important to resolving threats. When trying to resolve threats in the early game you can treat Counterspell and Deprive as the same card in practice. As the aggressor in this situation you want to lead with a spell that is threatening enough to warrant a counter but not so threatening that it will automatically get countered. Additionally I will almost always lead with the more expensive threat to force them to use a hard counter as opposed to Spellstutter Sprite. This can lead to them not using Sprite if you fail to play a follow up spell or playing out another creature that is too large for Sprite to handle. You can also use this to your advantage if you have removal in hand (and mana available), sequencing it so that they attempt to Spellstutter Sprite a threat but you have a Disfigure (or something comparable) to take their Sprite away. This will render the Sprite’s trigger less effective and potentially fizzle it. Setting up their Sprites to fail is important as it takes away Izzet’s two-for-one potential. Sequence your spells so that even in the fail case, all isn’t lost. If the first spell is snap-countered it might make sense to hold back trying to double spell until the next turn, provided it won’t give the Izzet deck time to line up three potential answers.

You can also just overload Izzet’s mana. If Elves resolves a Priest of Titania, it can present more threats than Izzet can easily answer. Similarly, it is exceptionally hard to counter a Myr Enforcer with Spellstutter Sprite. Sometimes the best way to deal with countermagic is to render it useless.

All of this is important in the early and midgame. What about the late game once Mystic Sanctuary and Tragic Lesson is online and the Izzet player is churning through their deck while also using Sanctuary to retrieve their best spells? At this point in the game your goal should shift to overloading their defenses. In some cases this may not matter – they have an Insectile Aberration and are beating you down and you do not have the time to draw into gas. But if you aren’t under pressure there is no reason to give up. Instead try to have enough cards in your hand that at the end of any exchange you aren’t hellbent. That being said, trying to beat these decks in the late game is challenging unless you have a card advantage engine that can keep pace.

Keeping pace on cards can be addressed in deck construction. If you are a deck that is prone to run out of gas in the mid game it might pay to run a cheap way to reload your hand or otherwise gain card advantage. Kor Skyfisher, Night’s Whisper, and Winding Way all help on this front. They are cheap enough that they can be forced through a way of counters and can potentially post trouble after you untap. 

There are two more options to get an edge when during deck construction. The first is to run blue and red yourself. This gives you access to Blue Elemental Blast/Hydroblast and Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast. These counters are cheap and have use against a wide swath of the format. Which is why you can also go in the other direction and completely ignore Izzet. Doing this will give you an edge in sideboard games where these decks tend to overload on the blasts to deal with other decks attempting to dictate the game via the stack.

Sideboard games come down to a few key cards. The highest impact cards out of the Izzet deck, aside from the blasts, are Stormbound Geist and Swirling Sandstorm (and potentially Gorilla Shaman if you are Affinity). Geist changes the way you have to spend your removal as it requires either two spells or an exile effect to handle. If you are a deck that goes wide you have to play around Swirling Sandstorm. Never deploy so many threats that you are unable to come back from a board wipe. If your opponent looks like they are spinning their wheels, just casting cards to fill the yard you can put them on at least one copy, if not two, of Sandstorm in their deck for games two and three. Play around it accordingly and force Izzet to waste it at an inopportune time.

Here are a few other tips that can matter when playing against Izzet:

  • If you are using removal during combat, use it during the declare attackers step. Once you move past blockers, if you cast removal of Ninja of Deep Hours, they can use ninjutsu in response if they have a second copy.
  • Remember Spellstutter Sprite uses an enters-the-battlefield trigger. You can remove faeries to neuter the ability.
  • When removing faeries, always go for Spellstutter Sprite first.
  • If you have incidental graveyard hate, use it. Don’t weaken your gameplan to attack Izzet’s graveyard in post-board games; make your primary gameplan stronger.
  • It is possible to run these decks out of threats.

The various Izzet Mystic Sanctuary decks are some of the very best in Pauper at the moment. While this is by no means a comprehensive list of ways to fight them, it provides a solid foundation.

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