Coming in Hot
Izzet at MGM Continental Cup #1

By Marcel S. on 05 December 2018

I’d bet money on the assumption that pretty much the whole Highlander community was really hyped for Halle (the town where the first MGM Continental Cup took place). From what I feel, the event fully lived up to the expectations: Nice location, good price payout, a lot of community sponsored goodies, a fat trophy for the winner and—most important of all—almost 100 players from multiple European countries participating. That’s nuts for our small format. I hope Halle will establish itself as a replacement for the yearly Highlander Cup that died some time ago. It could very well become another highlight besides the well-known Berlin Metagame Masters series and the young but growing Westfalen Masters series in Western Germany. I guess I can speak for all DD3-members that we all enjoyed the tournament very much. We’d definitely travel far again and attend if there is another iteration. Chances are good, said ‘Hall of Games’ store owner Lars. Let’s hope for the best and see how things went for me this time.

Cheating (on my Favourites) Without Remorse

Blue-based control decks always were and are my choice for tournaments since I can remember, not only in our Highlander format. For Halle I did something I haven’t done in ages, though: Pretty much out of the blue (pun intended) I decided to ditch white and black as my favourite complementing colours and went full Izzet instead. It felt a little risky, especially because I didn’t and still don’t have much experience with the deck. So why would I choose an unfamiliar archetype for the biggest HL tournament this year?

[He like to say NO (editor's note)]

Because I think the deck is still in a solid state right now. After the Mystical Tutor ban, a lot of successful and well-known UR veterans dumped the archetype, claiming it was pretty much dead now. Of course, that ban hurt. A lot. It probably hurt Izzet even more than any other deck. But its core strengths—non-basic hate, a lot of cantripping, card drawing, cheap interaction, random free wins with non-basic hate cards and burn that can end games rather quickly—still remain. Your match-ups against the top tier decks (RDW, Reanimator, Scapeshift) are not too shaby while you have game against all the aggro-control variants (Jeskai, Grixis, Sultai) and non-blue multicolour stuff. Thanks to a lot of counterspells, even rarer and unexpected stuff like green-based ramp is not unwinnable. This is why I guessed Izzet would be a fine choice for the diverse metagame I expected in Halle. According to the archetype breakdown, six other players thought so, too. From two of them I know they missed Top8 in the last round just like me, so it could have very well been some UR deck in the quarter finals (which is obviously not a proof, but could be an indicator that Izzet was a fine choice for that tournament). I don’t regret changing so spontaneously.

More Fire, Less Bombs

You shouldn’t play Izzet as a pure draw-go control deck anymore, in my opinion. If you aim for the very lategame, white and black are better choices. That doesn’t mean UR can’t play the long game, but being a little more on the aggressive with cheaper threads and an overall lower mana curve let’s you apply pressure earlier if there is an opening. You can punish opponents for bad draws a lot easier than let’s say with UW control where you’re almost always focusing on defense than offense early just by the deck’s nature. With that said, Izzet has a lot of staples (all the best of blue’s goodstuff and cantrips, flexible and cheap burn spells and the non-basic hate package) and still offers a lot of room to tune it, depending on your playstyle. Here I’ll explain what I think are the fundamental tweaks of my list:

  1. Low curve, low land count: Counting Phyrexian Mana, Dazes’s, Force of Will’s, Gush’s and Misdirection’s alternative casting costs as zero CMC and Treasure Cruise / Dig Through Time as CMC 1 or 2 respectively, my final list had an average CMC of 1,93. Pretty low for a deck that is still more on the controlish side, right? Accordingly, I only played 32 mana producing lands (+ Wasteland). This ensures you draw more business spells the longer the game lasts while you can still operate with only 2-3 lands in play. On the other hand, that means I didn’t play any of the big red dragons nor Sharkan nor Torrential Gearhulk. The only cards that cost five or more mana where Hour of Devastation and Mystic Confluence since you really need some kind of reset button in case things go really wrong.
  2. Misdirection: I love how Izzet leaves room for 1-2 niche cards with huge blow-out potential besides its non-basic hate (for example, I even ran Shadow of Doubt some time ago and caught a lot of Scapeshift players pants down). I played Pyroblast in this slot before but was looking for a card that also did something against non-blue decks. See rounds 1, 2 and 5 below for prime examples of game-saving applications.
  3. Incinerate, Searing Spear and Lightning Strike: Yes, I played all these 1R = deal three damage Instant spells in my list after some UR veteran from Finland convinced me to do so (thank you, Marko). We all love Lightning Bolt for a reason and yes, these cost double the total mana. But the effect is so strong and multiple copies provide a higher chance to keep the board clear from both creatures and planeswalkers—especially in the early game where it is most important. Bonus points for not a single opponent really expecting them when not playing against RDW.
  4. Gush: This one I have seen years ago playing against Max Hofer who now just became the first MGM Continental Cup champion. He still plays it in his winning Grixis list and it has convinced me, too. The applications seem endless and most of the time, you want to play it in your main phase when looking for answers while making good use of two blue mana before you return those lands. There’s a reason pro player Stephen Menendian wrote a whole fucking book about a single card. Just try it (in an appropriate shell, of course).

Apart from that, my deck’s core stayed within the usual amount of 8–12 cantrips, 3–5 real card advantage draw spells, 10–18 permission spells, 12–18 creatures and 9–12 other burn spells.

The Worst Enemies

Round 1: vs. Ronald on RDW

I started the tournament facing a match-up you don’t really like to see when running a zero lifegain deck. Game one he mulls to six which is good, but his start is outright aggressive nonetheless. I bolt his T1 2/1 drop, tap his Keldon Marauders with Ice, causing them to only deal two points of damage. His T3 threat gets Searing Spear’ed, I play a cantrip, force his T4 threat and tap out for Cryptic Serpent on my next turn. That one goes all the way.

Game two I’m stuck on just one blue mana source while dropping Mountain after Mountain. Fortunately, I can burn his early threats again, play a Thing in the Ice and Portent him so he’s stuck on two lands for several rounds. Thing in the Ice flips, I have enough live to let through a Ball Lightning and start beating. He finally draws a lot of cards with Risk Factor but his comeback play is denied when I misdirect a burn spell to his Rampaging Ferocidon, clearing the way for a final Horror attack.

Score: 1-0

Round 2: vs. Benjamin on Gbr Ramp

A lot of basics, fast mana and big threats I can’t burn—I wasn’t pleased once I realized what he was playing. Game one I keep a mediocre hand with Back to Basics and not much early interaction. I still keep it since I don’t know what I’m playing against and that hand might develop nicely in a drawn-out game. He doesn’t do me this favour, though, and goes full rampant mode with T1/2 mana elves and ramp spells. T3 fivedrop is too much to handle and I concede.

Game two I’m doing my impression of the Human Torch and burn everything he plays Turn 1-3. Force Spike hits his T4 ramp spell and then there’s not much more coming. I drop a creature and play B2B and Blood Moon just for safety reasons, shutting down his utility lands (Blood Moon) and cutting him short of two mana (Back to Basics), whose might have made a difference, I don’t know.

Game three was pretty back and forth. I once again burn all his early creatures and Misdirection protects my only red source from Mwonvuli Acid-Moss which turns out to be very important. The game slows down for a while until he drops Thrun, the Last Troll. I have no out against that big boy except continuously chump-blocking with Young Pyromancer tokens. Things get really ugly when he resolves Titania, Protector of Argoth and starts creating tokens.

The game-winning play feels a little comboish: Play everything, making enough Pyromancer Tokens to chump block. Draw three cards with Bedlam Reveler followed by Crackling Drake who is a 22/4 at this point. Block all his big hitters with Pyromancer tokens in his turn, tap his creatures with Cryptic Command in my next turn and attack for 34 points of damage.

Score: 2-0

The Preferred Enemies

Round 3: vs. Felix on Jeskai

Finally some match-up I feel rather confident about. Game one I resolve a T2 Thing in the Ice and make it flip two turns later while being stuck on three lands. The big Horror attacks two times for a total of 14 damage because I can Mental Misstep a Path to Exile. Searing Spear plus Lightning Bolt finish him.

Game two is the fastest I have ever played. After lamenting over my “lucky nut draw” in Game one he’s a little tilted apparently. When I Force Spike his T2 Search for Azcanta, he’s getting really upset. My EoT3 Clique shows me a hand with five red cards while he has two Islands and a Plains in play. He concedes when I add a second creature to the board in my next main phase. “Of course”, he sums up the match from his perspective while putting his deck back into the box, visibly pissed. “Azcanta would have found me my red source for sure, but you have that Force Spike.” I don’t comment on anything and enjoy the longest break of this day.

Score: 3-0

Round 4: vs. Joel from Finland on 4 Colour Blood

I love that guy. Very friendly and an overall very enjoyable opponent. Game one he has a rather slow start compared to what this deck is usually capable of. We trade cards, deal some damage to each other and I finally get to flip a Thing in the Ice at the end of his turn with a hardcasted Gush. He chooses to concede.

Game two I lose the game in T2 when I don’t counter Sylvan Caryatid but rather cycle Miscalculation to find my third land. The game goes long and this annoying 0/3 shroud Bird of Paradise plus a single Basic Forest keep him in the game through my Magus of the Moon. I finally lose to some unanswered beater.

Game three shows how well he knows his deck and this match-up. He casts a lot of test spells, pulling my countermagic. He plays around my mass removal and finally, a Raging Ravine threatens lethal in two turns. Apart from his manland, the board is clear, though. I start spamming cantrips (Opt, Supreme Will, cycled Hieroglyphic Illumination) in his end step, hoping to find either Wasteland, Back to Basics or Blood Moon, but I don’t. I have to let Garruk Wildspeaker resolve which untaps his Ravine that takes me down to five. I give Impulse a try and finally find Blood Moon. I Chain of Vapor his Garruk back to his hand, untap and slam Blood Moon which spells victory.

Score: 4-0

Read the Fucking Card!

Round 5: vs. Sven on UW Midrange

That deck won the last MGM and I’m sure that’s the way to go for UW right now. Game one I fuck it up royally. An unanswered Stoneforge Mystic searching for Batterskull pressures me but I can somewhat stall the game out. I drop Chandra, Torch of Defiance, knowing an Island is on top. I need this blue source and use Chandra’s first ability to play a land—which I can’t because she’s not worded like Chandra, Pyromaster that I had in mind. So the Island stays exiled and the missing blue source costs me the game slowly but surely over several turns.

Game two is what you expect from two-coloured blue-based match-ups: We trade stuff, aim for landdrops and pretty much wait for the opponent to move. The longer the game goes, the more I get ahead, though, because I have a lot more raw drawing power than him. Since I’m under pressure having lost the first game, I finally start some counter war fighting about my Dig Trough Time at the end of his turn. I win it and now chain into Treasure Cruise and Crackling Drake, when the judge calls extra turns. I have to connect with the 20+/4 Crackling Drake now to make the match draw.

He knows this, too, and plays two flying guys, ready to block my single massive attacker. I can burn one flyer, but the other blocker remains. In my upkeep, he wants to Path to exile my Crackling Drake which I misdirect to the remaining creature on his battlefield, clearing the way for a nice 27 points of damage in one single swing.

Score: 4-0-1

Round 6: vs Niclas on MonoB Suicide

I have played Nicals several times during the MGMs in Berlin, know what he’s playing and don’t like what I’ll be facing. I keep a smooth hand in Game one that answers his early threats, but he has several of those 2/1 zombies that keep coming back from the grave. Paired with a pesky Bloodghast, the chip damage adds up until I’m dead.

Game two I profit from all the burn I have in my deck. I answer almost every threat, drop an early Cryptic Serpent which causes a lot of trouble for him. You know you’re winning against MonoB if you force them to play defensively. Sooner later, a little more burn to the dome and two swings by the fat snek end the game.

Game three is the most intense game I had this tournament. We both played it really well, making a lot of tough decisions after his Curse of Disturbance hit the battlefield. He always had to think about which of his creatures he’d let attack to trigger the Curse, even if that meant sacrificing some to my bigger blockers. I on the other hand had to think about if and when to start the race and what to use Snapcaster’ed burn spells on (his creatures or him). It finally boiled down to a situation where he needed one additional attacker for a lethal alpha strike or get killed by my flying army the next turn. He drew a land for the turn which spelled game because it triggered Bloodghast’s Landfall from the graveyard and got the last two missing points of damage through.

Score: 4-1-1

Round 7: vs. Nils on Jeskai

This was a win-and-in for both of us, deciding who of us would reach Top8. Once again, the additional burn spells carried their weight in Game one. I kept the board clear before dropping Blood Moon. It didn’t take him out of the game completely, but slowed him down considerably. I follow up with Chandra, Torch of Defiance that reveals a Mystic Confluence on top of my library the next turn. He concedes.

Game two was just a prime example of why Jeskai always is a solid deck choice: Efficient creatures add up while cheap (tax) countermagic buys the two or three needed turns to out-tempo your opponent. Also, Magus of the Moon is not very good against them since they can still cast their burn spells. So Game three is the all-deciding one and Nils has a pretty fast start again. This time I can hold my ground, though. The game lasts longer and longer while I’m stuck on four lands, only one of them providing red mana. The mana disadvantage becomes real since he can play more threats than I can answer, so it boils down to one big turn where I feel like a combo player again: Having Mana Drain’ed his Palace Jailer, I have 4 colourless Mana, 3 blue and 1 red mana producing land in play. I cast Treasure Cruise, Impulse and Gush (for its alternative cost), finding me the second red source that lets me play my Hour of Devastation. He loses 3 creatures, two tokens and his Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Sick. Unfortunately, his True-Name Nemesis (probably Izzet’s Nemesis more than any others) stays on the board and I can’t race it in the following two turns.

Score: 4-2-1

What’s Left

I was a little sad at first because I didn’t use my two chances to make Top 8, but not for long. The tournament was a phenomenal experience and the deck felt really smooth even without that much experience and testing. I am so looking towards the next tournaments, especially my first Westfalen Masters in Dortmund two days before Christmas. Until then, I will cut some stuff (Chart a Course and one or two counterspells) to add even more cantrips (I SO want to play Peek) and more fire (trying out Mizzium Mortars). My MVPs of this tournament include, but are not limited to: Thing in the Ice, Force Spike, Crackling Drake, Misdirection, Reveler, Chain of Vapor, Mystic Confluence, Fiery Confluence. Yep, that’s Highlander.