With Pioneer finally settling down after the onslaught of bans late last year, we are beginning to see the metagame adapt to prominent archetypes without relying on bans. Despite Pioneer currently going through a phase of degeneracy with Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach, there are various approaches to fight these combo-focused archetypes. Although I fully anticipate a Dig Through Time ban in our future soon, pursuing an aggressive game plan is often an excellent method to go under combo strategies. As a result, we are seeing the rise of Mono-Red and Mono-Black Aggro as a way to keep combo in check, which means other aggressive strategies have a shot too. One in particular which saw heavy play in the early iterations of Pioneer is Izzet Ensoul. Before we look at creating Izzet Ensoul on a budget, let's dive into the strategy and why it remains a solid contender within the Pioneer landscape.
Izzet Ensoul was a former Standard all-star that saw dominant play leading up to Magic Origins. It even took the following Pro Tour by surprise with Mike Sigrist taking the strategy to the finals. Despite its successes, Izzet Ensoul faded away as players capitalized on its fragility. Now with the introduction of Pioneer, Izzet Ensoul is back with an expanded card pool that offers more power to offset the fragility it had in Standard. Izzet Ensoul is an aggressive strategy that utilizes cheap artifact creatures alongside powerful effects such as Ensoul Artifact and Ghostfire Blade to pile on damage quickly. There is plenty of interaction that rewards you for playing artifacts also: Metallic Rebuke protects your threats and Shrapnel Blast provides effective removal. Izzet Ensoul can act as a voltron strategy, where you can gear up one creature, or you can choose to go wide with a myriad of artifact threats.
At the inception of Pioneer, Izzet Ensoul saw extensive play due to the inclusion of Smuggler's Copter which created powerful early turns coupled with consistent card draw. Despite the banning of Smuggler's Copter late last year, the strategy remains powerful—even if it's under the radar as Adam "yoman5" Hernandez suggested last week. With players focusing their sideboards to combat Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach, there are fewer Disenchant effects around which grants new life to Izzet Ensoul.
As with most Pioneer decks, you can buy into a competitive budget-friendly version of the deck and upgrade it over time to see if it's right for you.
This budget build of Izzet Ensoul rounds out to $86 and provides plenty of tools to get you started.
The key card is Ghostfire Blade, which does double the work within the list. First, it provides an efficient way to convert our cheap artifact creatures into threats. Second, Ghostfire Blade can act as a creature thanks to Ensoul Artifact or Skilled Animator. This is a good line to consider as this offsets the potential two-for-one when trying to attach Ensoul Artifact to a creature.
There are a few tips to keep in mind while playing the strategy, especially with regard to the powerhouse, Stonecoil Serpent. If Stonecoil Serpent has base 5/5 stats due to Skilled Animator or Ensoul Artifact, the counters it had prior still apply. Another thing to note is that Stonecoil Serpent has reach: seemingly a hidden mode on the creature which will block favorably against fliers in most cases.
One challenging aspect of playing Izzet Ensoul is sequencing your lands correctly. For example, deploying Darksteel Citadel on turn one or two is preferred as if you draw into Ensoul Artifact, it creates an indestructible threat that can attack right away. Although there may be a temptation to deploy a Shivan Reef or on-color land first, Izzet Ensoul is an artifact deck splashing blue and red for interaction so we can afford to deploy off-color lands in the early turns. Also, powering up Darksteel Citadel is a surefire way to negate your opponent's Fatal Push or any other removal they may have.
You can take a few routes to upgrading Izzet Ensoul. The first route incorporates Emry, Lurker of the Loch for some sweet artifact synergy.
Totaling up at $197, this semi-upgraded build of Izzet Ensoul incorporates a more streamlined mana base that comes at a price. With the additional $110 we are adding a playset of Steam Vents and Spirebluff Canal by taking out some basics. We are also adding a Hangarback Walker, two Emry, Lurker of the Loch and another Metallic Rebuke, removing the playset of Ornithopter. Since we are cutting artifacts from the mainboard, Spire of Industry becomes less effective so we have cut two out for more consistent mana. Although the price of shock lands and fast lands are rising due to the popularity of the format, they are worth the investment if you intend to play more Pioneer. You can grab a Steam Vents in the "Allied Fires" Challenger Deck coming this April if you intend to pick up Standard soon or want extra cards for your buck.
Although the inclusion of Emry, Lurker of the Loch is uncommon within Izzet Ensoul, it allows potent combinations that may aid against unfavorable matchups. For example, Emry with Gingerbrute provides a recursive blocker that can net 3 life each turn which will buy time against aggressive strategies. Emry can also lock out strategies that focus on noncreature spells, such as Azorius Control and Lotus Breach, by recurring and sacrificing Hope of Ghirapur as long as the damage criteria has been met. By doing this, you can acquire time to find threats or to kill off your opponent. Another potential line involves Emry and Hangarback Walker, which creates an infinite blocker that leaves Thopters behind when it dies. Finally, as a powerful creature, Emry acts as an excellent lightning rod for removal. Although Emry unlocks different lines with Izzet Ensoul, she is not an essential win condition but can unintentionally offer protection for your other threats by being a threat herself.
Finally, we can add a playset of Mutavault alongside a few stronger sideboard options to create a fully optimized build of Izzet Ensoul.
By adding $100, we get access to the best man land in the format, which can carry a Ghostfire Blade incredibly well. Although the addition of Mutavault is not necessary, I believe it's a great tool to mitigate flood late in the game by providing aggression. Accordingly, Mutavaults are expensive, and you can get away with running one or two instead of a playset.
The last notable upgrade is adding Wild Slash instead of Shock. Although a minor nuance, meeting Wild Slash's ferocious clause is easy to achieve as we have methods for upgrading our artifact creatures into 5/5s. Although Shock is a perfectly serviceable card, it could be worth upgrading into Wild Slash if the damage prevention clause becomes relevant. If you anticipate the rise of Feather or Heroic strategies in your metagame, it may be a worthwhile pickup; otherwise, Shock achieves the same effect for the same mana cost at a cheaper price.
A few more tricks to consider when playing Izzet Ensoul is when to utilize your Ensoul Artifacts and Skilled Animators. It's easy to take the aggressive approach and make your artifacts 5/5s as soon as possible, however, it's worth sandbagging your 5/5 effects against Fatal Push or removal-heavy strategies. This is to make your opponent use their removal on your smaller creatures, especially ones that are equipped with Ghostfire Blade which are fine to trade off.
Although Emry, Lurker of the Loch is a decent route to take with Izzet Ensoul, there is an alternative with a counters subtheme with Steel Overseer.
Although Steel Overseer rewards you for taking a go-wide approach, the artifact creature also provides a prolonged game plan if your opponent is light on interaction. With the emphasis on counters, we are adding a few more Hangarback Walkers into the mix to gain the most value from what Steel Overseer offers. Even once Hangarback Walker has left the battlefield, adding counters to the Thopter tokens is a strong approach. Similarly to Emry, Steel Overseer can be a lightning rod for removal which could protect your other threats given the potential it has.
Once you are comfortable piloting Izzet Ensoul, you can switch the deck up depending on your Pioneer metagame. If you are expecting a removal-focused metagame, Emry provides a route to recur threats consistently and offers a midrange approach to the aggressive strategy. Steel Overseer provides the other end of the spectrum, where you can capitalize on strategies that are light on removal. Another card to consider is The Royal Scions, which works similarly to Smuggler's Copter.
Although my lists omit The Royal Scions for cards such as Emry and Steel Overseer, there is potential for the three-mana planeswalker in the build. The Royal Scions can loot away for more action, and it's minus ability complements well with Ensouling our creatures. Although it does have a nombo with Stonecoil Serpent, the card has potential and I recommend picking up a few to add to your toolbox.
Despite Pioneer showing a level of degeneracy with Dimir Inverter dominating the landscape, there are instances where aggressive strategies can break through. Aggression often works best when the metagame is either unknown or in a state of flux, and I expect some changes in the upcoming weeks with the potential ban of Dig Through Time. Izzet Ensoul remains one of the most underrated strategies in the format, and since there's fewer Disenchant effects currently in the Pioneer landscape, now is a good time to pick up some scissors and cut through to glory!