Pioneer Primer: Izzet Phoenix


Ready for some Pioneer action? Rone tries out the newest format for the first time with an old bird everyone though was dead: Arclight Phoenix! Come along to see the deck's configuration and see what it can do in the brand new nonrotating format.

What Pioneer Means for Other Formats

Obviously, there is a wide range of ways to enjoy Magic—Cube Draft, Commander, even Old School or Vintage—but only a few of them are considered competitive. Adding a new nonrotating format between Modern and Standard means a lot of thing, for starters:

  • Plenty of cards from Return to Ravnica until Dominaria that saw literally no play are now Pioneer staples, increasing both their price and demand.

  • Next year, Pioneer will be showcased as an important format at several GPs and at the new Pro Tour which is now re-branded as the Players Tour.

  • As a result, the formats' relative importance gets shuffled around: Pioneer becomes what Modern originally was, while Modern now takes the place Legacy usually had, leaving this last format almost dead, if it wasn't already, competitively speaking.

Long story short, Pioneer is here to stay, and it will be balanced in power, as Wizards keeps banning any problematic cards. So be aware when building a Pioneer deck that any broken cards can be gone in a month or less.

Anyway, I am not here to debate every repercussion Pioneer has for Magic in general. Rather, I will focus on the best thing it has to offer for me specifically: bringing back Arclight Phoenix!

It's alive!

It's Alive, It's Alive!

Let's start with a look at the deck as it roamed the skies of Modern before it lost Faithless Looting:

The banning of Faithless Looting basically made the deck disappear from Modern, although lots of people, myself included, tried to find viable alternatives. Now, Pioneer gives you the opportunity once more to throw some red hasty birds into your graveyard and later bring them back to the battlefield, rampant and crushing in the air, something I never get tired of.

The end result is somewhat of a hybrid between the aforementioned Modern archetype and the Standard version which I also played during the War of Spark era, back when the Crackling Drake-Arclight shell was a legitimate choice. I write hybrid, because the deck has some upsides compared to the Standard build and obviously a few downgrades if you look at the Modern main deck: cards like Lightning Bolt, Manamorphose, and Looting are impossible to replace with regard to power level. However, one truly broken card is available, which is another good reason to play the deck: Treasure Cruise.

Just for the laughs, here's a small conversion table of the original Modern cards and their Pioneer substitutes:

Deck Configuration

1. Spells Suite: Card Selection/Draw

Most of these cards—and Opt is the perfect example—don't do much by themselves. However, in combination, they synergize threefold: turn Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake large, bring back our Phoenixes, and feed the graveyard for Treasure Cruise's delve cost. Izzet Charm largely fell out of favor with Modern Phoenix players, as the flexibility was never really worth the cost, but in Pioneer it's an irreplaceable requirement. Just make sure to do something useful with it, either discard Phoenix or Fiery Temper, otherwise you just spent 2 mana to be down a card. Chart a Course is another must, and this one even makes us go up on cards every so often.

treasure cruise

Treasure Cruise is the closest you get to cast Ancestral Recall outside of Vintage. Seriously, the fact that the card is legal in neither Modern nor Legacy was one of the reasons why I wanted to build this deck. Many people have argued that the card will be banned sooner or later. Let me explain why I don't think so: in a format with Fabled Passage as the best fetch land and fewer free spells, getting up to seven cards in the graveyard actually requires a huge effort. Realistically, only Izzet Phoenix is able to get there. Unless soemthing drastically changes, I strongly believe we'll be allowed to keep our Cruise.

2. Burn and Removal Spells

Aside from the fancy name and the ferocious clause which is quite marginal in this deck, Wild Slash simply is a more expensive—financially speaking—Shock. Sadly, it's the best we have in the format. At least, it sometimes lets our large attackers ignore Fog. Lightning Axe is a necessary evil for the strategy, since spot removal is quite poor in red, at least compared to things like Fatal Push or Abrupt Decay. It's also the cheapest way for us to get Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard and one of the nicest combinations with Fiery Temper, which itself is as close as you can get to a Lightning Bolt.

3. Honorable Mentions

Some versions make room for a couple of Thrill of Possibility as additional discard outlets. Finally, or even better, Finale of Promise is a card that really impressed me both in Standard and Modern, but has seen zero play in Pioneer. The reason is pretty simple, as it doesn't get along well with the almighty Cruise. If at some point Cruise is no longer available, I will consider both this card and Bedlam Reveler as possible substitutes.

4. Creature Spells

The creature core of the Modern deck remains intact for the Pioneer version; while Arclight Phoenix and the Thing are the ultimate payoffs to win the game, Crackling Drake is not always the weapon of choice for everyone. Thing in the Ice / Awoken Horror is super straightforward: bad against control and removal-heavy decks, superb when facing aggressive strategies, if it survives long enough to flip into the scary 7/8. As a reminder, this is no Modern, my friends, so don't expect crazy turn-three transformations. We need at least a couple of turns to work things out. Also important is how you cast your spells: let's say there is a creature on the battlefield and only one counter left on your Thing; targeting that other creature then won't kill it, rather you will send it back to the opponent's hand.

awoken horror

Arclight Phoenix is the namesake of the deck and the ultimate reason the strategy works. It's the unfairness with wings, and most games you run away with is because you find two or more of the birds, so you can swing for lethal in a couple of turns. Again, another friendly reminder, this is neither Modern nor Legacy, there's no Path to Exile or Swords to Plowshares to worry about, although you have to watch out for Settle the Wreckage from white control decks. Finally, don't forget that, at worst, you can sometimes pay 4 mana to summon the Phoenix from hand, and that's something you shouldn't be ashamed of. It's much more likely to win that way in Pioneer than in Modern.

Crackling Drake won me so many games in Modern, but I am unsure about its place in Pioneer. Alternatively, some people run Merchant of the Vale // Haggle. The creature side can be useful in the late game, but until then the Adventure is strict card disadvantage and doesn't feed Treasure Cruise.

5. Mana Base

Twenty lands is the minimum. Going lower would be careless since we need at least two for our card selection spells to operate. Once you get to two or three, my advice is that you either bottom or discard as many lands as you can, as this deck draws a lot. You will end up with a ton in play, so any opening hand with more than three mana also is a big no-no.

steam vents

For now, we run a total of 14 dual lands to pay for all of our costs smoothly. Steam Vents are always the best, followed by Spirebluff Canal as they are better suited for the early game. Sulfur Falls and Shivan Reef both have drawbacks: the first needs a basic or a shock land to enter untapped, whereas the second one damages us every time it adds colored mana. I haven't fully explored the option to include a couple of Fabled Passage yet, filling the graveyard at the cost of having your basics enter tapped until you get to 4 mana.

Sideboard Choices

I am not going to submit a regular sideboard guide for a reason: it's too early to talk about an established metagame. For instance, when I saw the first Pioneer results, Izzet Phoenix was at the top, whereas now it has decreased in popularity. Only a few weeks ago, Veil of Summer was banned, and there may be more bans to come. In any case, there are some sideboard all-stars you must consider when assembling the deck and once you discover the local or expected metagame, it will be time to adapt the list for it.

1. Extra Counter Magic

Since our primary plan is to set up the Phoenix kill or an early Awoken Horror, we don't run main-deck counter magic other than Izzet Charm. Though there are a wide variety of options to include from the sideboard, starting with Spell Pierce. It's the cheapest on the list, but its effect becomes more and more irrelevant the longer the game progresses, so I would rather stick with the next on the list.

Negate is a catch-all answer against any non-creature spell for only 2 mana, so it's my weapon of choice for the moment. Disdainful Stroke is also worth considering against go-big strategies where cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger basically mean game-over. Last but not least, Mystical Dispute is a card that is getting more and more attention, recently even found main-deck space in Standard. It's a huge tempo play that allows you, for a single blue mana, to deal with annoying cards like some 3-mana planeswalkers that are quite popular in Pioneer: Teferi, Time Raveler, Narset, Parter of Veils, and Oko, Thief of Crowns.

2. Extra Removal

A few articles ago, I talked about Abrade in Legacy and it's quite unique how this flexible card is a catch-all answer in all formats, sees play in almost every red sideboard I build, and Pioneer is no exception. Fry offers a clean answer against some previously mentioned walkers, especially against Teferi, Narset, and opposing Things in the Ice. Anger of the Gods is a board sweeper to fight the plethora of aggro decks that start with early cheap threats. It may look like a "nombo" to have this and Arclight Phoenix on the same team, but be wise and always play it before you bring back your birds.

3. Additional Planeswalkers

When you find yourself in certain grindy matchups, you can move toward the controlling shell, leave Thing in the Ice on the bench, and add some powerful planeswalkers. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is efficient almost in every scenario, either with her minus ability to kill small to medium-sized creatures or against controlling strategies, you start plusing to get to her ultimate and gain card advantage. Then there's Narset, Parter of Veils, who shuts downs opposing cantrips while digging for more gas.

The Izzet combination has efficient planeswalkers you can try too, for example The Royal Scions, a handy 3-mana card that either loots through the deck or pumps our creatures until we get to what is most likely a game-winning ultimate. Saheeli, Sublime Artificer might become popular for slower aggro matchups, while Ral, Izzet Viceroy or Chandra, Awakened Inferno are further options to fight control decks.  

4. Miscellaneous Slots

The list concludes with some flexible slots you might use against certain cards that are otherwise difficult to deal with. Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft only grows in popularity as time passes. A Standard all-star, it also sees play in Modern and Legacy, and this obviously makes it Pioneer material. You can even bring back the 3/1 flier when you transform Thing in the Ice and have it go on another Adventure.

Even without Smuggler's Copter, Pithing Needle still has a lot of targets, from annoying planeswalkers to activated abilities from creatures like Walking Ballista. It might be worth a try in certain matchups.


This has been my first foray into Pioneer, and I must confess I wasn't into it until I saw how many forgotten cards have a chance to be played again. It feels amazing to delve for a Treasure Cruise or to bring some Phoenixes back from the grave. What's more important, it's amazing to see how a new format develops week by week. When I first looked to play Izzet Phoenix, the deck was one of the biggest players in the metagame, but then it seemed out-classed by Field of the Dead variants, Monoblack, and Monogreen Devotion. Maybe now is the time to rise like a Phoenix once more.

In any case, my gut tells me that unlike those decks this one is here to stay. If you are an Izzet lover like me, please leave a comment below and share your own experience with the deck.

Until next time,
Rodrigo Martin

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

1 Comment

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Tatzelwurm-V(10.12.2019 16:51)

And between "Treasure Cruise" and "Dig Through Time" it seems at the moment, that Dig is more at the risk of a ban in Pioneer, because of Combodecks like Twiddle Storm, so Izzet Phoenix seems really to be a deck, which don't have to mind about bans (regarding cards out of the deck).