Leading into Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica, it looked like protecting Niv-Mizzet, Parun with Dive Down was going to be the best strategy. A late emergence of Boros Aggro kept that from happening, but as soon as things settled down, a deck with four Niv-Mizzet and two Dive Downs won a Grand Prix.
I was the least amount of surprised a human could possibly be.
Why Is Niv Good?
Decks in Standard either win by going under or going over. Card advantage only matters for velocity. Having Niv as your win condition puts massive pressure on your opponent to end the game quickly. It's like Upheaval / Psychatog in one card. Niv-Mizzet has built-in resiliency, gives you value in many situations where it dies, and typically kills within a turn or two. What more could you possibly want?
You must be in a heinous position in order to lose once you untap with Niv. You can't say the same for any other card in Standard.
Is Niv Your Plan A or Plan B?
You can use cards like Search for Azcanta, Treasure Map, or Sarkhan, Fireblood to accelerate into Niv, but there are also the decks that utilize Niv as their top end in a slower, traditional control deck. Considering how clunky Chemister's Insight is, I'm a big fan of using one of the accelerators to cheat Niv onto the battlefield.
There's also the plan of sideboarding in some copies of Niv to go over the top of your opponent. Building your deck around Niv is a fine plan, but so is using it as a juke. Turning what is often a 21- or 22-land deck into one that supports multiple six-drops isn't exactly easy, as it requires some sideboard slots, but it's very doable.
Get to Six (or Seven) Mana
How do you live until you get to cast Niv? Thankfully, blue and red both offer excellent options. Between Shock, Lava Coil, and Beacon Bolt, you have spot removal to take down nearly anything. Opt does a ton of work to ensure you have the proper amount of lands and the right answer at the right time.
Unfortunately, the Grand Prix Milwaukee-winning deck had too high of a mana curve for my liking. With Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Expansion // Explosion alongside four copies of Niv, it was just too much. Protecting yourself long enough to play your big spells wasn't a guarantee except against the slowest opponents. Against them, having Niv as your big finish is often good enough.
As powerful as Niv-Mizzet, Parun is, there are plenty of answers to it in Standard. People are jerks and play things like Ravenous Chupacabra, Kraul Harpooner, and Vivien Reid, all cards that can destroy Niv for a mana advantage and without giving Niv's controller a card.
Enter Dive Down.
What started as a frustrating Limited combat trick people used to protect their creature with Spectral Flight has somehow become a card you use to protect your six-drop in Constructed. As it turns out, cheap interaction is at a premium, especially if it reads "counter your very important, likely very expensive removal spell."
Then you untap with Niv and win the game. In Standard terms, the combo might as well be Illusions of Grandeur / Donate. Even though Dive Down does effectively nothing except act as a combo piece, it's a must-include because of how dramatically it improves Niv as a card.
Breaking the Rules
Although it looks innocuous, Treasure Map breaks the rules. It ramps you in two different ways, is a card filtering and then card drawing engine, and also gives you a burst of mana that allows you to play Niv with Dive Down backup on Turn 5. Despite all that, it's completely fair. To say that it's one of my favorite cards in recent memory would truly be an understatement.
I severely underestimated how much worse Search for Azcanta is in a format without one-mana cyclers. I also underestimated how little investment Treasure Map was. Because of that, I mostly ignored Treasure Map as a viable option. We discussed it, but never actually tried it.
The Missing Link
Unfortunately, Niv-Treasure control didn't pan out. I had the early removal and the late-game finisher, but I couldn't figure out what to do with that middle game to really make the deck feel complete. I was lacking a card advantage spell and maybe a blocker. Murmuring Mystic and Crackling Drake were the best options for the latter, but four mana was awkward.
It's possible Adrian already solved this dilemma...
The Final Version
I've tried Jeskai, similar to Adrian's build, but I didn't like all the top end, nor did I think the white splash was entirely necessary. Grixis looked appealing because of the removal suite, Thought Erasure, and The Eldest Reborn, until you realize you can't play any Swamps with Niv. In the end, I've settling on Izzet.
My current list:
I shamelessly stole this skeleton from Magic Online player Ryuumei and changed very little. Despite my best efforts to really break it, Magic Online did my job for me (again).
From trying a controlling Izzet deck in the vein of Adrian's, I found I needed more action in the three- to five-mana slot. Having extra resources would have been helpful for the versions playing Sarkhan, Fireblood and I'm not too proud to play Divination. That said, Adrian had the right idea that some portion of the three- and four-mana cards should be cards like Enigma Drake that could function as both a blocker and a threat.
Drawing cards is nice and everything, but casting a threatening card does more to advance your gameplan and defend you from your opponents, which certainly plays well into the plan of untapping with Niv. If one of your Drakes draws out a removal spell, that helps protect Niv as well.
Once you're there, you kind of want a third Dive Down and a few more Drakes. Suddenly, your deck is much different. However, this sort of deck is much stronger against decks that would otherwise be great against a normal control deck with Niv and Treasure Map. Drakes moves you toward more velocity, which I already wanted, and while you lose Treasure Map, your draws will unbelievably smooth.
With cards like Opt, Chart a Course, and Discovery in your deck, you can keep most of your seven card hands, assuming you have a blue source. I'd also rather use my cantrips to dig for action rather than dig for spells. If there's very little happening in the game, you can cantrip to your heart's content. However, if you're behind, you don't want to cast a Chart a Course to hit your third land drop. You'd rather have the extra land, be able to play Enigma Drake to block, and Chart a Course for more action later.
Will this deck flood? At some point, yes, but a full third of the maindeck offers some card drawing or selection. You'll have plenty to do with your mana. The fact that it actually contains some top end is a huge selling point toward playing more mana sources too.
Why no Arclight Phoenix?
Well, who's it actually good against? The Vierens' take on their Izzet Drake deck was blocking with Arclight Phoenix, and if we're in the market for blockers, Enigma Drake makes more sense. If Niv is a stronger endgame than Arclight Phoenix, I don't see a reason to include weak cards like Tormenting Voice and Goblin Electromancer as enablers.
Search for Azcanta might seem like an odd maindeck inclusion, but even if it's just a ramp spell for Niv, it's worth it. You sort of want an additional filtering tool in that slot anyway and you could do worse than Search. To top it off, maindecking Search allows you to save a sideboard slot, as you'd almost certainly want them after sideboarding to help cast things like Niv and Star of Extinction.
Spell Pierce is a weird inclusion, but I've come around. The most attractive aspect of the card is sniping Treasure Map in pseudo-mirrors and History of Benalia or Heroic Reinforcements from Boros. Past that, its options are rather limited, which makes it an extremely high-variance card. It's only really truly abysmal against Golgari, and even then, if you can Spell Pierce a Vivien Reid, you'll feel like a god.
Ral, Izzet Viceroy is the card I want against Golgari. Your plan against them often involves killing their first few threats and trying to gain traction, but that can be difficult with all their removal. Even though they have access to some Vraska's Contempts, Ral is the stickiest threat possible you can have against Golgari. Thankfully, it's also a good one, since it either helps you control the battlefield or puts you far enough ahead that winning is trivial.
VS Golgari Midrange
You'll see a lot of swapping of Shocks for Shivan Fires in creature matchups where you don't need a bunch of removal for smaller creatures. It should be a slight upgrade because your opponent will typically have a creature and you'll usually use a Shock on one of them instead of a planeswalker or their life total. The theory is that being able to hit something bigger, like a Golgari Findbroker or Wildgrowth Walker, is worth the upside, but it could be wrong. Being able to Shock a Vivien Reid that has activated its -3 ability is generally game-breaking.
VS Izzet Drakes
Ral kills Drakes and Niv, so maybe it's worth bringing in too, but I worry it's too slow in what is otherwise a fast-paced matchup. What really matters is sticking a Drake so you have something to block Arclight Phoenix.
VS Jeskai Control
VS Boros Aggro
Murmuring Mystic went from unplayable to incredible to mediocre. Oddly, the more polarizing Boros gets, the worse Murmuring Mystic becomes. Either you don't have time to establish a Bird army or they'll try to beat you with Experimental Frenzy and Banefire. If you want additional help against the medium-sized versions of Boros, you could do worse than Murmuring Mystic, but it's narrow.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
Spell Pierce is incredible here. Watch out for Dire Fleet Daredevil. Expect them to slow down significantly after sideboarding, which works in your favor. This goes for a lot of matchups, but be cognizant of Banefire.
As much as I wanted to Treasure Map people, this seems like the final evolution for Izzet, both for Drakes and Jeskai Control. My final plans involve not wanting Niv-Mizzet against well-prepared Golgari decks and not wanting Murmuring Mystic against Boros. Maybe I'm crazy. We'll see just how crazy I am at #SCGCON!