Welcome to Part 5 of the commander player’s guide to Ravnica. We’ve already looked at the allied-color guilds (Azorius, Rakdos, and Selesnya) and toured the mossy, fetid regions of the Golgari Swarm last week, which means it’s time for Izzet. I’ll be back a little closer to the Gatecrash release to look at the other guilds (Dimir, Gruul, Boros, Orzhov, and Simic).
Izzet is the color of mad scientists, crazy spells, and big chances. If you imagine yourself as an extreme science geek, you’ll discover that Izzet is an absolute blast to play.
Big Bang Theory
In terms of the color pie, blue and red intersect in a couple of different areas, including big, flying creatures, theft, power-and-toughness switching, and the whole fire/water elemental thing, but the Izzet guild is more narrowly focused on spells—specifically red’s affinity for sorceries (e.g. Magnivore) and blue’s affinity for instants (e.g. the much-less-playable Cognivore). From replicate, the Izzet mechanic in Guildpact, to overload, the new mechanic for Return to Ravnica, Izzet has a real go-big-or-go-home feel to its spells, and most of its creatures are designed to complement those spells in ways that other color combinations just can’t match.
Value for Mana
Nobody has bigger spells than Izzet’s. The effects are either huge or hugely versatile (Izzet Charm is probably among the best 2-mana spells in the game), and when Izzet pays for something, they really get their mana’s worth.
Random by Design
Flavorwise, red has always been happy to embrace chaos, but mechanically, this is often represented by interaction with the top of the deck (e.g. Erratic Explosion). Blue, on the other hand, has the flavor of the meticulous planner, which is represented mechanically by manipulating the top of the library. Obviously, it’s win-win if you combine something like Galvanoth with blue’s scry, Preordain, and Brainstorm effects.
I combined blue and red in a coin-flip deck the last time I came to Ravnica (seriously, Stitch in Time is a Time Walk for 1 extra mana, and they were selling them for about fifty cents. What Johnny could resist?), and again, blue takes the sting out of the chaos, effortlessly finding Krark's Thumb with Fabricate and Muddle the Mixture.
Blue and red also intersect at making things carefully chaotic for your opponents with their target-changing and spell-copying abilities. Wild Ricochet, Swerve, Reiterate, Twincast, and Mirror Sheen1 can squeeze out a great deal of advantage for you while thwarting your opponents’ carefully laid plans. Remember that casting Swerve on an opponent’s removal spell doesn’t just protect your creature while destroying someone else’s—the decision to use that removal spell was a measured one, and now one opponent may not have an answer to a very serious threat.
By the way, my favorite spell to copy is a multiplayer mainstay: Decree of Pain. Everything still dies, but because your copy resolves first, you get to draw the cards.
Hand Size Matters
Both colors can draw cards well, although obviously, blue is king. Red can have extra fun with that with cards such as Adamaro, First to Desire or Sudden Impact, especially if you want to use Trade Secrets, Prosperity, or Minds Aglow. At a minimum, Izzet isn’t going to have trouble keeping its hand full; at most, you’ll be able to turn drawing cards into a win condition in its own right.
WeaknessesQuicken or Hypersonic Dragon may take the sting out of this a little by allowing you to interact with your opponents’ permanents at instant speed, but it is usually important to keep a certain number of creatures on the board in order to answer multiple attacks with a single card.
Red has Dragons, and blue has walls and various hard-to-answer beasties, so keep these in mind when building around Izzet. You have to focus on durability because you almost certainly won’t want to be casting creature spells as frequently as anyone else at the table, and you can’t sweep the table clean quite as effortlessly as white and black can.
Hidden GemsCall the Skybreaker – A guild that sometimes lacks a strong board presence meets a recurrable sorcery that produces big-ass creatures. Considering the potential for onboard synergies with sorceries and the high probability that a card-drawing deck will build up too many lands over the course of the game, this is an easy call for any Izzet deck to make.
Clout of the Dominus – This is at least the second best of the cycle of guild-colored Auras from Shadowmoor and Eventide—at least for Commander. By waiting one turn to play your commander, you protect it from sweepers, get +2/+2, shroud, and the surprise value of haste. Shield of the Oversoul is the only better card from that cycle, and then perhaps only because most of what you get from Clout can be duplicated by Equipment. For turning Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius into a 7/7, it beats out the other eight Auras.
Cloven Casting – This is a stupidly expensive spell that doesn’t really belong in any other deck. Even Riku of Two Reflections likes to double up on mono-colored spells as much as multicolored ones (at least until they print Intet’s Ultimatum), but Cloven Casting can be absurd in an Izzet deck. Doubling up on all of the instants and sorceries from this list, for a mere 1 mana, is worth the investment of 7.
Djinn Illuminatus – I have had a man-crush on this guy for years, ever since I replicated Demonic Tutor five times at the end of an opponent’s turn. If you untap with him, you are suddenly much more likely to win, and he’s one of the stars of the Izzet vs. Golgari Duel Decks.
Dominus of Fealty – One of the strongest of the god cycle, Dominus is almost uncastable in any other color combination,2 but for Izzet, it’s a cheaper Bringer of the Red Dawn. Regrettably, Izzet isn’t as good at sacrificing things it steals as Golgari, but the repeatability of the effect more than makes up for it. For extra yucks, add Puca's Mischief so that you never have to give back what you’ve taken.
Etherium-Horn Sorcerer – One of the best Izzet creatures is actually something that they lucked out on in the new Planechase decks. It won’t show up on searches of Guildpact and Eventide cards, but it is perfect for this guild. Remember what I said about blue smoothing out the randomness of red’s chaotic spells? Well, cascade is a chaotic mechanic, and Izzet absolutely tames it, making this Minotaur highly abusable.
Eye of the Storm – Let’s not kid ourselves—this is an Izzet spell; in fact, it’s the ideal Izzet endgame. Any Izzet deck worthy of the name will be running a higher proportion of instants and sorceries than other decks to begin with, and with so many of their spells drawing cards as part of the effect (Fire // Ice, Electrolyze, and Prophetic Bolt come to mind), they should have no problem riding the Storm to victory.
In the same vein, Mirari is not only one of the best cards in the game for an Izzet deck, it would actually be the best possible legend to put at the helm of an Izzet deck if your playgroup were foolish enough to allow that. These two cards, plus the not-hidden-at-all Mystical Tutor, headline the group of non-Izzet cards that are absolutely made for the guild.
Izzet Guildmage – I believe this is the first of the Guildmage cycle to make the Hidden Gems list, and for good reason. Playing blue in Commander, I like to use a bunch of 1-costing, library-manipulation spells in place of mana fixing, and while Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions isn’t a bad draw in the mid- to late-game, the Guildmage makes them so much better. Even a lowly Volcanic Hammer can take out a couple of Titans if you have an Izzet Guildmage, as the number of times you can copy a spell is limited only by your available mana.
Jilt – A two-fer! Jilt is one of those cheap removal spells that nobody ever sees coming. Dealing 2 damage can be more effective than you think (Kaalia of the Vast, Oracle of Mul Daya, Acidic Slime, etc.), especially if you’re copying it or combining it with other pinging effects. At the same time, bounce can be great in a format dominated by Voltron, implausibly expensive fatties, and sweepers that you want to save your team from.
Nucklavee – Neither color is known for recursion, with the sole exception that they regrow their instants and sorceries. Nucklavee has limitations—you can't bring back a Time Warp and a Chaos Warp, for example—but you really want to consider Nucklavee because of the two-for-one value. I’ve been abusing Nucklavee in my Thraximundar deck for years, primarily using it to bring back Cruel Ultimatum and either a counterspell or a piece of removal like Recoil or Crosis's Charm.
Izzet Chronarch, along with Anarchist, Scrivener, Mnemonic Wall, and Archaeomancer, are also valuable additions to the team, and if I were going to fully dedicate myself to the spell-slinging theme, I’d play them all. That would make Ghostly Flicker an absolutely awesome recursion target, by the way.
Spellbound Dragon – This is among the heaviest-hitting Dragons in the game, which is saying something. Even better, you can fire and forget rather than having to pump mana into it each turn. Izzet may struggle to bring back some of the things it discards (that Furnace Dragon or The Unspeakable isn’t coming back), but you’re just an Anarchist away from bringing back that Beacon of Tomorrows and hitting for 11 again next turn. Discarding instants and sorceries can also keep your Bosium Strip active.
Meet the Boss
Nothing! Izzet is the first guild in Return to Ravnica to avoid having any commanders that are unremitting excrement. Well done! What’s the secret? It seems that there are only five commanders to choose from, including the recently spoiled sequel to Niv-Mizzet. Of the five enemy-colored guilds, only Simic has fewer commanders to choose from (three plus whatever is in Gatecrash). Izzet had better have quality on their side with such a low quantity of commanders.
Fair to Middlin’Tibor and Lumia – A rare, double-character legend, Tibor and Lumia join forces in a voltronesque manner to form a mighty Hill Giant. It isn’t quite as bad as that, since both abilities can be useful, but it’s not that good either unless you play in a metagame dominated by weenies and tokens.
Nin, the Pain Artist – If Nin were only blue, it would make more sense to me: giving up blue’s card advantage to address its most glaring weakness, the relative inability to deal with creatures. However, red excels at this type of creature removal, so a card that adds nothing new to red (see Jiwari, the Earth Aflame) while giving up blue’s greatest edge makes a bafflingly half-assed ability for a commander.
I realize that people who don’t understand politics will call it a political card, but saying, “Oh, he won’t mind that I blew up his Titan because I gave him a bunch of cards,” is asinine. Your opponent doesn’t have to come gunning for you immediately—you just gave him the tools to win the game.
You may increase that player’s threat profile by giving him more cards than anyone else at the table, but there are numerous problems with that:
- He still has more cards than anyone else at the table.
- Most playgroups still focus too much on life rather than cards in hand when assessing threats.
- You have to fill up the hands of other players in order to protect yourself with Nin, so at the end of the day, you’re just reducing your power relative to the rest of the table.
There are some cards that you can combo with Nin to much greater effect, but Stuffy Doll is the obvious choice at the top of a very short list. Ultimately, the payoff that Nin offers for building around her is just not enough.
Izzet is the Johnny guild, yet they have no cards in this category; even Selesnya has a couple, and they're just a bunch of token-loving nature freaks! It’s ironic, but the Johnniest of guilds has so far offered less in the way of Johnnyable commanders (defined as cards that are weak until you put them in the right deck).3
PowerhousesNiv-Mizzet, the Firemind – Just to clarify, casting Curiosity or Ophidian Eye on Niv-Mizzet does not make you a Johnny; it makes you a douchebag. What is often overlooked amongst all the cheesy combo potential, though, is that Niv the First is plenty powerful all on his lonesome. Drawing cards and blowing stuff up is the name of the game for this guild, and so he will pretty much rock in any guild build you put him in.
You can build around NM1 fine, but do you really need to be told to draw cards in a blue deck? Fine then—put in every variant of Timetwister and Wheel of Fortune that you can find, and we’ll all admit that you're a Johnnytastic deck-building prodigy.
Jhoira of the Ghitu – Once again, we have a potentially fun card that some clever, clever children have decided to combine with backbreaking haymakers that they can cheat into play. Nobody is impressed that you suspended Obliterate and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre or Worldfire and Bogardan Hellkite, and if you’re quite finished preening, the rest of us would like to get on with another game now.4
Jhoira does enough with any random stack of ninety-nine cards to shake up your table. Feel free to have fun playing with the biggest and baddest in your Jhoira deck—as long as you let the rest of us play, too.
Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius – In the final Izzet irony, Niv-to-the-Miz II was supposed to be the powered-down version, but for my money, he turned out to be the strongest Izzet commander. At 5/5, he’s a more respectable body than NM1; his ability is not obviously broken, which reduces his threat profile, and yet, his activated ability is much more useful than his predecessor’s.
I’ve always been a big fan of Kumano, Master Yamabushi (well, not always; only since he was printed), and NM2 is very close to Kumano, with the added advantage that any time you ping an opponent, you get to draw a card. The utility is very obvious: Shear away any weenies that might be troubling you or fire away at an opponent’s dome until you draw an answer to a fatty too big for Niv to blast.
NM2 is going to be a mana-hungry commander for a guild that doesn’t ramp very well, so the answer is artifacts, but not the usual suspects—you need colored mana. The 3 slot on your mana curve should probably be clogged with as many versions of Darksteel Relic and Coalition Relic as you can find. As always, Earthquake, Pyroclasm, and Breath of Darigaaz effects are a good idea, especially if they allow you to deal enough damage that NM2 can then finish off a bunch of larger creatures.
Despite the way I categorized the commanders, I am serious that Izzet is the most inherently Johnny-friendly guild, and not just for flavor reasons. As such, if you’re drawn to the guild, you probably neither want nor need advice from me. Still, here are a few ideas for those entering Nivix for the first time:
- Here Be Dragons – Red has huge Dragons, and blue makes cheap facsimiles of huge creatures. Also, I hear casting Rite of Replication on Bogardan Hellkite is quite good.5 If you ever find yourself dragonless, Reins of Power and Day of the Dragons is a nice Plan B. As my buddy Ryan pointed out, if Day of the Dragons ever leaves play, you get to keep the creatures you stole.
- Creatureless – Between Earthquake, Evacuation, Curfew, and other effects, an Izzet deck shouldn't have too much trouble keeping the board clear while throwing around spells with wild abandon. When permanents have a short life expectancy and your deck is 60% instants and sorceries, you’re going to win.
- Other People’s Creatures – Izzet has the tools to steal, acquire, press-gang, or otherwise borrow all of the best creatures on the board. Imagine a chain of Threaten, Ghostly Flicker, and Nucklavee (the flicker effect acting like a Bazaar Trader to let you keep temporarily stolen creatures)
Finally, there’s no decklist today (I have R/W/U, R/U/G, and two U/B/R commander decks, but no straight Izzet), but I want to discuss another way of building your first Izzet deck: the Duel Decks upgrade. The Izzet vs. Golgari decks released last week are fantastic, probably the best duel decks we've ever seen, and they make a great starting point for Commander.6
Brainstorm, Izzet Charm, and Prophetic Bolt are everything that is right about this guild (although you should try to get your hands on an Electrolyze as well), and cards such as Kiln Fiend, Goblin Electromancer, Gelectrode, and Wee Dragonauts point you in a very clear, powerful, and fun direction. I like the addition of Galvanoth, and Sphinx-Bone Wand looks like a joke, but it is actually a brutal finisher in this kind of deck (as I learned when Josh dealt me over 30 damage in the space of two turns with just the Wand and a Whim of Volrath).
Arcane Melee and Lunar Mystic are two junk rares from Avacyn Restored that can turbo-charge an Izzet deck, and Surrakar Spellblade from Rise of the Eldrazi can be phenomenal card advantage if you can protect it (hint: Distortion Strike), and that’s even before we’ve seen all of the upcoming goodies from Return to Ravnica.
Adieu, Farewell . . .
That concludes our tour of Ravnica for Commander players. I hope that has your creative (and other) juices flowing with excitement. The coming year promises to be a fantastic time for Commander, and I encourage you to jump in with both feet. Anyone not sporting five new guild decks by the end of the year is going to be missing out on a hell of a lot of fun.
But I’m afraid that your tour guide must hang up his hat for a little while; I’m going to have to give up my regular writing schedule and focus on other more spousally-acceptable projects for at least the rest of the year. I will drop by with the occasional article, but you won’t see me around these parts more than once a month or so.
Thank you all for your continued interest and support, and remember that Gathering Magic still has the best multiplayer writers in the known universe! You can find top-notch casual content every week from my Muse Vessel conspirators Bruce Richard and Brandon Isleib; the Godfather of Casual, Abe Sargent; and all-around stud Brendan Weiskotten.
Until we meet again,
Keep It Casual,
1 Mirror Sheen is the kind of spell that will sometimes work unnoticed—you won’t even get to copy anything because it deters your opponents from sending anything your way.
2 I didn’t realize that the Dominus was included in the first Commander precons until Brandon pointed that out, so it’s perhaps not as hidden as I’d thought, but I will say this: Your experience playing with him in a three-colored deck may well have been mediocre, but try him in his guild colors, and you will not be disappointed.
6 Unfortunately, I was too busy writing my Golgari review last weekend to take Jarad’s deck out for a spin, but now that I’ve had a chance to look under the hood, I’m definitely going to use it as the Shambling Shell of a Skullbriar, the Walking Grave aggro deck.