Inner Workings: Izzet Phoenix
- Gianluca Aicardi
In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we'll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it's the turn of a the latest blue-deck marvel, a list that transferred directly from current-day Standard and took Modern by storm – quite literally.
The Phoenix subtype has one main shtick to it: it rises from the ashes. Which in Magic terms means that almost all of the Phoenices are able to return from the graveyard; sometimes heading to the hand; other and more coveted times, skipping directly onto the battlefield. They're still a small tribe (there's just twenty of them), and the mechanic of their resurrection does not always translates into efficient cards, but the current Standard meta has had one Phoenix at the forefront since its printing one year ago in Rivals of Ixalan.
It was immediately apparent that Rekindling Phoenix ranked among the best of its species, since its specific way to get back into the heat of battle doesn't involve deckbuilding requirements nor the expense of any kind of resource; it'll just return to the battlefield on its own. This, in some regards, makes it even better than a hexproof creature, because the opponent is forced to use two pieces of removal to get rid of it (one on the Phoenix, one on the Elemental token) and in the meantime our death-defying bird can safely block a larger attacker without affecting its tactical contribution the game in the slightest, since it'll return with haste.
We're not here to talk about this Phoenix, though. Despite its midrange cost, Rekindling Phoenix has been included as a curve-topper in RDW decks in Standard, but still has to find a proper home in Modern. Another mythic Phoenix made the leap right away and is concurrently a major force on both formats at once, which is a very rare feat.
Arclight Phoenix has the same converted mana cost of Rekindling Phoenix, but it's not meant to be hard cast. In fact, the reviving routine is not a failsafe against the dangers of the battlefield, it's something you want to exploit to begin with, by making the Phoenix start its journey from the graveyard. To do that, you have to dump it there, most likely by discarding it from hand, and then trigger the resuscitation by fulfilling the demand of three instants and/or sorceries in a single turn. It's evident this is the same kind of strategy storm decks have been using since they exist, with blue and red as the fittest colors when you choose to follow this "spellslinging" route. If we apply this approach to an aggro deck, the result can be explosive thanks to the payoff of a squadron of three-powered flyers swinging towards the opponent's side of the table like there's no tomorrow.
There's some variance to the Izzet Phoenix (also known as U/R Aggro) lists in Modern, but the core is pretty much always the same: Arclight Phoenix, some likeminded companions, and a ton of cheap burn spells and cantrips to capitalize on them while sliding through the library at high speed. Here's an example with a good pedigree that lead to a strong outcome.
Izzet Phoenix by Eli Kassis, 1st place at Grand Prix Oakland 2019
|4Scalding Tarn||4Arclight Phoenix||4Manamorphose|
|1Misty Rainforest||4Thing in the Ice / Awoken Horror||4Serum Visions|
|1Wooded Foothills||2Crackling Drake||4Sleight of Hand|
|2Steam Vents||4Thought Scour|
|2Sulfur Falls||4Faithless Looting|
|3Spirebluff Canal||4Lightning Bolt|
|1Breeding Pool||3Gut Shot|
|2Ancient Grudge||2Anger of the Gods||2Blood Moon|
|2Ceremonious Rejection||2Surgical Extraction||2Threads of Disloyalty|
|2Young Pyromancer||1Engineered Explosives|
The non-Phoenix Finishers
Crackling Drake is another Standard card that was instantly inducted into Modern meta, being the kind of finisher spellslinging decks want and need. It's the one concession Izzet Phoenix makes to a less frenetic style of game, ensuring some reach in late game; or actually, not- too-late, seeing that the storm technique can pay off soon enough, and upon reaching Crackling Drake mana by turn four or later (there aren't accelerants in the deck and only 18 lands), this winged guy's power could already be considerable, and only bound to grow further down the line.
Thing in the Ice was already around as a longterm investment for Izzet Control decks; it's an early blocker that turns into both a large body and the closest effect blue has to a board sweep. In Izzet Phoenix, the Lovecraftian/Carpenterian Thing has good chances to transform quickly – the only deck that might enable it faster would be a pure storm build, but in that case, it wouldn't bother.
It's worth stating that, unlike Young Pyromancer lists, Izzet Phoenix doesn't play like a control build, it doesn't wait around to ultimately overwhelm the board with tiny ground-based 1/1s; its plan is to hit the opponent asap with relatively large flyers and seal the deal with burn. In fact, it doesn't even bother playing Snapcaster Mage, which doesn't trigger anything by himself and is too slow to contribute to the storm count for the Phoenix. It's the same reason Goblin Electromancer as quickly phased out in favor of just inherently cheaper spells, as opposed to spells that the Electromancer could make cheaper. Some lists do include classic RDW early hitter Monastery Swiftspear, though, as an extra source of aggression.
This section will look extremely familiar to whom has had any previous experience with a storm deck. Izzet Phoenix includes five playsets lifted directly from that related archetype or its variants, a grand total of 20 spells that draws you one card at the cost of a single mana or, in the case of Manamorphose, for no mana expense at all (though one has to make sure not to shoot oneself in the foot with the reverse filtering, since that green mana is almost always akin to colorless in the deck). The latter, Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand can be broadly considered "storm cards", whereas Thought Scour and Faithless Looting fits more specifically into a strategy that finds value in self-discard, which is exactly what the Arclight Phoenix requires.
The Removal Suite
Which are actually just some more one-mana spells devised to enable the Phoenix, grow the Drake and transform the Thing in the Ice, but having the additional goal to, primarily, eat away at the last few points of the opponent's life total via direct damage and, secondarily, control the board a little. Lightning Bolt performs both those functions with ease, while Flame Slash only the latter one, so it's conveniently sided out in game two when not needed, but it's still relevant enough in the meta to warrant maindecking.
Gut Shot is a burn spell you don't see often, and although its uses are limited, its Phyrexian mana alternative cost makes it a bona fide zero-cost spell, and you don't get too many of those these days; plus, there are plenty of tactical targets that dies to it (Vendilion Clique, Dark Confidant, Delver of Secrets, Young Pyromancer, and various mana dorks), and at worst it'll be one damage more to the opponent's dome that also enables the deck's core gameplan.
Izzet Charm is, in the tight universe of this deck, kind of an expensive spell, but its modes are a collection of cantripping, burn, and control, so its versatility buys it a place, if usually in a single copy, as a finishing touch; significantly, it's the only counterspell Kassis ran in the main in his Grand Prix-winning Phoenix list, which really speaks of how little this archetype is willing to play the traditional blue-based control game.
Other lists have been known to running one or two copies of Lightning Axe and Fiery Temper, both spells linked to the deck's self-discard necessities, the first as a discard outlet that doubles as removal, the second becoming a proper Lightning Bolt clone the moment you manage to pitch it to Faithless Looting or the likes. In both cases, being extremely worse when certain other spells aren't around increases their variance to the point of advising against their inclusion in more streamlined lists like Kassis's.
The Alt Win-Con
Remember Pyromancer Ascension? It was wildly popular during Zendikar Standard, then made some occasional forays into Modern within storm builds, but over the years fell progressively out of favor, and now it's making a comeback thanks to the Phoenix. It's one of the most recent developments in the still new-fangled archetype, and not all Izzet Phoenix lists run it, but the idea is: if this deck manages to cast enough instants and sorceries to remove four ice counters from Thing in the Ice, it might well also add two quest counters to the Ascension. Granted, the Thing solves issues of overcrowded boards then immediately swings for seven, but the permanent Fork provided by an active Ascension is in the ballpark of certain planeswalker ultimates; it turns Gut Shot into a free Shock, and Lightning Bolt into Burn's wet dream of dealing six damage for one mana; it turns humble Sleight of Hand into a close relative of Ancestral Recall; and it almost guarantees you'll get a fresh batch of Phoenices from the grave no matter how many sweepers they run into.
The Mana Base
The deck is the epitome of Izzet, so it touches the entire land paraphernalia of that color combination, no surprise there. Breeding Pool is added exclusively to pay for the flashback cost of Ancient Grudge when it's sideboarded in; under Blood Moon it'll just be a Mountain, which is fine.
Ceremonious Rejection is the only counterspell Kassis brought along to assist maindeck's Izzet Charm, and it's meant to fight Tron specifically, same as Blood Moon. Some lists run the faster, more dedicated Alpine Moon instead, and add maybe one Dispel and/or Spell Pierce to face permission decks.
Ancient Grudge is the artifact hate of choice because it works from the graveyard too and puts Manamorphose's filtering to some use. Abrade is seen elsewhere. Anger of the Gods is the preferred sweeper for wide strategies and in the mirror, because it's a way to deal with any Phoenix permanently. At three mana, it's the most expensive spells of the whole 75 cards along with Blood Moon and Threads of Disloyalty, the classic answer to early value creatures a la Tarmogoyf (in other lists you can find a single Ral, Izzet Viceroy in the sideboard, and, sure, he synergizes with the plan, but it's also a five-mana walker in a deck that's reluctant to play anything that goes beyond CMC = 1).
Other cards are typical Modern sideboard fare, like catch-alls Surgical Extraction and Engineered Explosives, but it's interesting to note that Kassis still takes a couple Young Pyromancers for the ride, in case he felt he had to play more conservatively in game two.
Izzet decks have been constantly on the rise in the first Modern decade, and possibly across the other formats too – Scalding Tarn being consistently the most expensive fetch land is a clear signal. They appeal to the kind of old-school players that still frown upon this contemporary style of Magic where creatures are a key component, and not an afterthought anymore. But you know what's even better? An Izzet spellslinging deck with aggro creatures! Izzet Phoenix has a rich history behind it, but still felt like it materialized out of nowhere right after the release of Guilds of Ravnica in October, and took the lead of the entire Modern meta, dethroning all the other aggro decks and especially Rainbow Humans. The ultimate rebirth for a creature type that didn't always shine the brightest.
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Inner Workings Archive
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- Bloomless Titan
- Saheeli Evolution
- Hardened Modular
- Spirit Aggro