Deck Spotlight: (Pioneer) Izzet Ensoul

Izzet Ensoul is the most underrated deck in the format.  It is incredibly aggressive, versatile, consistent, and can maintain pressure late into a grindy game.  After Smuggler’s Copter was banned from Pioneer, the deck, which formerly packed three copies of Copter, was only made to evolve to, debatably, an even better version with The Royal Scions.

In this primer, I’ll cover the general composition of the archetype and the intricacies of the strategies surrounding its diverse lines of action.

Fives Tribal

Let’s start with the fact that Izzet Ensoul packs twelve copies of cards that each threaten one quarter of your opponent’s life total.


Ensoul Artifact and Skilled Animator are, unsurprisingly, the “plan A” for this deck, however, the supporting cast can pack such a punch that it can function just fine without them.  The good news is, having so much redundancy for this effect means you don’t have to very often.

Shrapnel Blast, on the other hand, can fill different roles based on the situation, but is at its best when its pointed at the opponent’s life total for the kill shot.  Impressively, it can double as removal for a large majority of creatures and planeswalkers in the format when it becomes necessary for your survival.

The math is easy here and, in a vacuum, casting a turn two Ensoul could potentially allow for a very effortless turn-four kill capped off by a Shrapnel Blast should your opponent struggle to find an answer to such an early threat.  This isn’t so easy for an opponent to do if you consider the fact that this deck often packs some number of a counterspells (Stubborn Denial or Metallic Rebuke) to snub their attempts at removal and plenty of resilient or evasive threats to target with Ensoul.

Let’s consider the options…

Ensoul Cookie

Ensoul Artifact can attach to a Gingerbrute to provide a nice two turn curve into one of the strongest attacks in the format.  In fact, I can’t think of any other deck that can swing for 5 on turn two.

Similarly, Stonecoil Serpent, Bomat Courrier, Ghostfire Blade, Hope of Ghirapur, Springleaf Drum, or Ornithopter can provide the same curve.  What Gingerbrute brings to the table that the others don’t, however, is the ability to become unblockable.  This is huge in this creature-centric format where your opponent’s creatures can often gum up the board and cause complications.  Keep in mind, though, that there are a number of commonly played creatures with haste in the format that are eligible blockers — Monastery Swiftspear, Questing Beast, Arclight Phoenix, and Soulflayer/Samut, Voice of Dissent come to mind.

Beyond that, Gingerbrute’s haste is incredibly vital when it comes to top-decking in the late game.  If you happen to draw Ensoul/Animator before you find an artifact to target with them, Gingerbrute gives you the opportunity to attack right away rather than having to leave up a vulnerable summoning sick 5/5 up for a turn to be removed by your Control opponent.  Following a Supreme Verdict, getting in for 5 while your opponent is tapped out can be crucial.

In versions of this deck that include Emry, Lurker of the Loch (which is rather uncommon), Gingerbrute can provide a recursive blocker that can net 3 life with each activation.

Ensoul Serpent

As previously mentioned, a one-mana Serpent provides one of many ways to curve out for a turn-two Ensoul.  In this case, the resulting creature is a 6/6 since the Serpent’s original stats, applied via +1/+1 counters, are added after its base stats are changed to 5/5 by Ensoul.  If you consider the number of five-power creatures included in the green midrange decks in the format (Lovestruck Beast, Steel Leaf Champion, etc), this extra point of power ends up being incredibly relevant in many games.

Beyond that, its trample, reach, and protection all provide useful means to get through chump blockers when you’re on the aggressive, block fliers (especially the ones that your opponent has attached scissors to), and dodge removals like Reflector Mage, Azorius Charm, and Tyrant’s Scorn.

In a deck that’s M.O. is to empty your hand early and attack briskly, Serpent scales well (pun intended) to provide impact in the late-game.

Ensoul Citadel

There are plenty of decks in the format that just can’t deal with an indestructible 5/5.

Consider the mirror match, for example.  Unless we can counter the Ensoul Artifact in the first place, there is no single removal spell for an enchantment in most lists.  A bounce spell could take care of the enchantment momentarily but most of them are unable to target a land.

Ensoul Vehicle

Since vehicles have their printed abilities regardless of whether or not they are piloted, an Ensouled Harvester will retain flying and its lifelink activated ability.  A ten-point life swing can be huge.

Of course, Smuggler’s Copter‘s ability to provide evasion and card selection in this way is missed, but The Royal Scions does a good impression that isn’t as easy to remove.

Scissors and Swords

You’ll have to be mindful of your opponent’s strategy when considering your own sequencing.  If your opponent will be gumming up the board with creatures, an evasive threat is often preferable to a resilient one.  If your opponent is likely to be leaning on early removal, you may want to prioritize attaching the Ensoul to a Darksteel of Citadel or cast it a turn later to provide spare mana for Stubborn Denial insurance. If the time isn’t right for Ensoul (or you haven’t drawn it yet), Ghostfire Blade can be the centerpiece to a strategy that involves attacking for some chip damage in a way that is much less vulnerable to a two-for-one scenario.


The blow-out when attempting to attach an Ensoul Artifact to a creature is the most common reason cited when players explain why they are nervous to pick up this deck.  Ghostfire Blade provides a good example of a way that this disadvantage can be reversed.  If the current match-up poses the threat that your opponent’s removal spells can lead to two-for ones, attaching a Ghostfire Blade for just one mana to any one of your efficient creatures is a good way to tax your opponent’s removal spells without feeling overly invested in their targets.

In any case, the go-tall lines can be made even taller with a number of Ghostfire Blades involved.  In some games, I feel like I’m playing a voltron-style deck, and in other cases, I’m overwhelming my opponent with a go-wide strategy.

Take, for example, this list played by The_Nayr in the Pioneer Prelim on Dec 19th:

Izzet Ensoul [The_Nayr 12/2019]

Planeswalkers (2)
The Royal Scions

Creatures (21)
Bomat Courier
Hope of Ghirapur
Phyrexian Revoker
Skilled Animator
Stonecoil Serpent
Whirler Rogue

Spells (8)
Shrapnel Blast
Stubborn Denial
Wild Slash

Equipment (4)
Ghostfire Blade

Enchantments (4)
Ensoul Artifact
Lands (21)
Darksteel Citadel
Shivan Reef
Spire of Industry
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents

Sideboard (15)
Stubborn Denial
The Royal Scions
Aether Gust
Aethersphere Harvester
Blazing Volley
Grafdigger’s Cage
Karn, Scion of Urza
Metallic Rebuke
Mystical Dispute

Maintaining Steam

I previously alluded to the inclusion of The Royal Scions potentially making this deck even better than it was prior to the ban.  Consider the similarities of Scions’ first two modes to those of Smuggler’s Copter:

  • Loot away bad cards in the late-game/locate the tools to set up early on
  • Get through blockers with Ensouled/Blade-wielding creatures

Great.  Now let’s compare each of their third modes…oh wait.  Sorry, Copter.

The Royal Scions‘ ultimate pressures your opponent to not only maintain 5 life, but 10, given then existence of Shrapnel Blast in the deck.  The pairing of the two give this deck reach that is unprecedented for aggro decks in the format.

Of course, your opponent can protect themselves from the Scions’ ultimate by dealing it damage, but doing so requires them to make attacks that either put their creatures at risk or limit the number of blockers they can leave back to protect themselves from your robots.

Additionally, this color combination provides quite a few useful tools in from the sideboard to combat opponents who want to grind.

Karn and The Antiquties War fill similar roles as curve-toppers that provide repeatable card advantage.  As of late, Karn seems to be preferred over Antiquities War in this spot, but I could see why certain builds would prefer the latter, as the third chapter can single-handedly end the game if you’ve got a few Darksteel Citadels, Springleaf Drums, and/or Ghostfire Blades following a Supreme Verdict or Languish.

Karn’s -2 generally makes the biggest creature on the battlefield and threatens another activation if your opponent can’t attack through for two damage on their next turn.  When its needed, the plus abilities can restock your hand, however, the +1 doesn’t often give you anything more than a land (which you’re not likely to be in the market for after you’ve just cast a four-drop).

I’ve been trying Ghirapur Aether Grid lately and have been generally pretty happy with it.  Similar to The Antiquities War, Aether Grid can make the most out of an otherwise innocuous board state where you’re light on creatures.  Interestingly enough, you can attack with a creature wielding Ghostfire Blades and still tap the Blades to activate Aether Grid.  Most often, I find myself dealing 1-2 damage during each of my opponent’s end steps when I have the Grid online but, even then, this damage adds up eventually to end the game.

Disruption and Security

Stubborn Denial is a hell of a card.

Ok, moving on…

Kidding.  But honestly, Denial provides the perfect security for your deck when you are attempting to go tall with Ensoul/Artificer and can often times snag an opposing planeswalker, combo piece, or removal spell should your opponent tap out to cast it.  I’m most impressed by this card when I am able to counter a turn three Teferi, Time Raveler that would otherwise wreak havoc on my set up.

Obviously, Metallic Rebuke provides the most versatility here.  Its rarely castable for just one mana (plus improvise) in the early game without specifically setting up to allow this and that often means passing an opportunity to attack but, in some match-ups, this plan is necessary to fend off a board wipe or counter a vital creature like Soulflayer, for example.

Mystical Dispute shines when it can slow your opponent’s planeswalker set-up while allowing you plenty of spare mana to advance your own board state.  Having access to all three in your sideboard means that you can board them in liberally to prevent your opponent’s plan and lean on your Ensouls to win the game.

Last Thoughts

I’ve been very impressed with Izzet Ensoul and through nearly 50 matches of testing, have found a very positive win rate against opponents on MTGO.  I’m finding the most difficult matchup to be aggressive red decks that pack redundancy on one- and two-mana burn spells that can pick off our creatures…especially the ones we are attempting to Ensoul.  Also, the Supreme Verdict-deck match-ups can be tough as casting Shrapnel Blast can often be complicated by countermagic, attaching Ensoul can be disrupted by removal spells, and Verdict, itself, can be debilitating.  These matches are far from unwindable, however, and the presence of The Royal Scions and some of the other long-game tools in the sideboard (mentioned above) help quite a bit, too.

In general, I tend to take risks when it comes to casting Ensoul early on in games and try to push through as much early damage as I can because I know that, even if I run myself out of resources early, I will likely be able to deal enough damage to make a top-decked Shrapnel Blast lethal.  More often than not, this thinking has paid off but, on occasion, I fall victim to the blow-outs as you might expect.

With this deck, you’ll need to be comfortable gambling a bit.  Familiarize yourself with the removal spells available in Pioneer as many of them require specific conditions to be met (creatures declared as attackers, less than 3 cmc, etc).  A good understanding of this will help to take higher percentage chances that lead to more victories.

Good luck.  Run with scissors.