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Just like in an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, the birds are everywhere. They are angry and they will attack, early and often. Phoenix decks put up results not only in Standard but even more so in Modern. Recently they took 2 spots in the top 8 of GP Bilbao, a whopping 4 spots at GP Tampa Bay and like a thievery magpie they even flew away with the shining trophy in Bilbao and at the SCG Open in Philadelphia.
Since Faithless LootingFaithless Looting gracefully snuck past the banhammer, we will have to settle in for the near future of Modern. That means events that are mostly dominated by Izzet Arclight PhoenixArclight Phoenix – with the occasional cameo-appearance by Dredge. And I thought you might want some advice that has better application than “just wait for Modern Horizons”. So here it is!

The Culprit

How they build a bird

Arclight Phoenix from Guilds of Ravnica

Arclight Phoenix from Guilds of Ravnica

In order to beat the enemy, we must know the enemy. Izzet Phoenix is a xerox-deck, a typical description of an aggressive deck that gets to cheat on land count thanks to lots of cantrips (1-mana spells that draw a card). We’ve seen these types of decks typically as Delver of SecretsDelver of Secrets decks in Legacy.
The thing about Izzet Phoenix is that its threats greatly benefit from a deck full of cheap cantrips, because it runs Arclight PhoenixArclight Phoenix, Thing in the IceThing in the Ice and a couple Crackling DrakeCrackling Drakes.
This is the stock list of Izzet Phoenix. Out of the 8 copies of the deck that top 8’ed the two Grands Prix and the Open this weekend, 3 of them played this exact main deck, and the other versions were only a couple choices different, so we can safely call this the stock version.

Izzet Phoenix by Matt Costa

Creatures (12)
Arclight Phoenix
Thing in the Ice
Crackling Drake
Snapcaster Mage

Spells (30)
Faithless Looting
Gut Shot
Surgical Extraction
Thought Scour
Lightning Axe
Lightning Bolt
Manamorphose
Opt
Pyromancer Ascension
Serum Visions
Lands (18)
Spirebluff Canal
Scalding Tarn
Flooded Strand
Steam Vents
Island
Mountain

Sideboard (15)
Abrade
Beacon Bolt
Blood Moon
Dispel
Dragon’s Claw
Keranos, God of Storms
Shatterstorm
Spell Pierce
Surgical Extraction
Young Pyromancer

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Not only does this deck present nut-draws like two Arclight PhoenixArclight Phoenix ready to attack on turn two, or a transformed Thing in the IceThing in the Ice that gets to bash for 7 along with a firebird on turn 3.
The deck can also easily play a long game where it quickly digs through its deck to present efficient threats turn after turn after turn. It gets to play weird situational cards in its main deck (like Surgical ExtractionSurgical Extraction) because it finds them easily when needed. And if they aren’t good, they can just get pitched to Faithless LootingFaithless Looting.
Both Eli Kassis and GP Bilbao winner Guillaume Matignon played 1 maindeck Echoing TruthEchoing Truth. And given how flexible an answer it is, it wouldn’t surprise me if this started to establish a trend.

Tools of the Izzet Mage

The usual UR Phoenix sideboards

Blood Moon from Masters 25

Blood Moon from Masters 25

Izzet Phoenix often gets even better postboard, since it can find its sideboard cards much more often than other decks. This in turn means that the deck has room to play a bunch of different sideboard options because it doesn’t need that many copies of each.
If we’d combine the sideboards of the Phoenix decks from top 8s this weekend, the combined sideboard would look like this:

Combined Izzet sideboards

Sideboard (120)
16 Blood Moon
14 Spell Pierce
13 Dispel
11 Abrade
Shatterstorm
Beacon Bolt
Dragon's Claw
Anger of the Gods
Surgical Extraction
Ravenous Trap
Ceremonious Rejection
Flame Slash
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Threads of Disloyalty
Engineered Explosives
Shattering Spree
Hurkyl’s Recall
Young Pyromancer
Keranos, God of Storms
Negate
Disdainful Stroke

These cards are all spread out between the lists, as nobody plays more than 3 copies of any one card. This means you can expect your Izzet Phoenix opponent to have two Blood MoonBlood Moons in their sideboard. They are also quite likely to run two DispelDispel as well as two Spell PierceSpell Pierce.
Because of the rising popularity of Whir Prison, almost all Izzet Phoenix lists started to employ one ShatterstormShatterstorm in their sideboards. And Dredge players not only need to watch out for the 3 Surgical ExtractionSurgical Extraction in the 75 of Phoenix. They also need to be aware of the single Ravenous TrapRavenous Trap that is quite popular.
It’s important to look out for the sideboarding trends and which cards wax and wane in popularity because this will help you figure out what you need to do beat Izzet Phoenix at any given time.

Tuning your maindeck

For those of us who won’t change our decks

Flame Slash from Conspiracy Take the Crown

Flame Slash from Conspiracy Take the Crown

Let’s be real, most of us Modern players are not going to change your decks based on the metagame. We are probably just going to change some slots in the sideboard. Graveyard hate is fine and all, with Surgical ExtractionSurgical Extraction being the clear best. But Izzet Phoenix excels by presenting different threats quickly, so you also need to be aware of Thing in the IceThing in the Ice, Pyromancer AscensionPyromancer Ascension and even Blood MoonBlood Moon, which comes in a lot more often than you’d think.

I’d say we’re even at a point where you can start to reconsider some of your maindeck choices to be tuned better against Izzet Phoenix. We don’t often have a deck so popular that this is worth it in Modern, but Izzet Phoenix posted a 20 % metagame share on the 2nd day of this weekend’s GPs.
The most important thing isn’t actually to be aware of Faithless LootingFaithless Looting and Arclight PhoenixArclight Phoenix. That part gets hyped up a lot, and while it is important for the deck, it’s also somewhat inconsistent and can be raced. What you really need to have a plan for is Thing in the IceThing in the Ice.
Even if you don’t play any creatures, it can be hard to race as it will likely have dealt you 14 damage by turn 4, which topped off with some angry birds or Lightning BoltLightning Bolt is just the end right there. You can’t really rely on Lightning BoltLightning Bolt to get the job done anymore, which is why some decks, like my RG Valakut list and even Izzet Phoenix itself, have started to maindeck Flame SlashFlame Slash.
The important thing is also to not overdo it. Modern is still very broad, so you can’t quite afford to play no bolts and all Flame SlashFlame Slash, but playing a split is decent.

Harden your scales

A relevant example of tuning

Arcbound Ravager from Modern Masters

Arcbound Ravager from Modern Masters

How about a deck like Hardened ScalesHardened Scales? It’s a creature deck, so it absolutely needs to deal with Thing in the IceThing in the Ice, but it has a hard time doing so. You can plan to wait until the lovecraftian horror has transformed, then quickly redeploy a board where you plan to chump block until you win. This can only really work if you already have Hardened ScalesHardened Scales in play and get lucky.
This is the Scales list I played at GP Liverpool in late 2018:

Hardened Scales by Simon Nielsen

Creatures (21)
Arcbound Worker
Arcbound Ravager
Hangarback Walker
Walking Ballista
Steel Overseer
Spellskite

Spells (19)
Mox Opal
Welding Jar
Ancient Stirrings
Hardened Scales
Animation Module
Dismember
Lands (20)
Forest
Horizon Canopy
Darksteel Citadel
Blinkmoth Nexus
Inkmoth Nexus
Llanowar Reborn
Pendelhaven

Sideboard (15)
Damping Sphere
Dismember
Evolutionary Leap
Karn, Scion of Urza
Natural State
Tormod’s Crypt
Grafdigger’s Cage

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I cut out some of the inconsequential maindeck cards like Throne of GethThrone of Geth and Evolutionary LeapEvolutionary Leap which allowed me to fit in some anti-phoenix tech. I also got tired of getting my Steel OverseerSteel Overseer Gut ShotGut Shot, so I felt it was fine to shave a copy of this card, which isn’t great in multiples anyway.
With the newly found space I moved a DismemberDismember to the maindeck to surprise kill a Thing in the IceThing in the Ice. I had also been very impressed with my sideboarded SpellskiteSpellskite, so I didn’t waste the opportunity to move them maindeck. It almost blanks Lightning BoltLightning Bolt and notably is a Horror, so it stays in play after Thing in the IceThing in the Ice. It’s important to be able to develop your board with something that won’t get returned to hand. In a pinch, if you have both the scales and Arcbound RavagerArcbound Ravager you can load up a bunch of counters on the SpellskiteSpellskite to make it bigger than Awoken HorrorAwoken Horror.
One important thing to note is that you still need these maindeck tech-choices to be somewhat synergistic with your game plan. In this case, SpellskiteSpellskite protects even better than Welding JarWelding Jar on the turn where you want to go all in with Arcbound RavagerArcbound Ravager. And DismemberDismember can be used as way to sacrifice a big Hangarback WalkerHangarback Walker now that I have given up other sacrifice outlets.

Metagame deck choices

Decks that excel against Phoenix

Ensnaring Bridge from Masters 25

Ensnaring Bridge from Masters 25

The format does not hesitate to suggest decklist after decklist that are supposedly good against Izzet Phoenix. The thing is that Phoenix is so consistent that it will just punish any suboptimal draws every time. And as I mentioned earlier, it gets to leverage its sideboard cards so well.

This means that your matchup against Izzet Phoenix, in most cases, is not as good as you think it is.

That is what makes Izzet Phoenix the best. So many people will show up to a tournament wrongfully thinking that they have a good matchup against Phoenix. Don’t be one of them. Respect the deck.

One of the proven best avenues to defeat this blue-red spells deck has been to build an Ensnaring BridgeEnsnaring Bridge. With Lantern Control somewhat outdated (though Sam Black top 8’ed in Tampa with the deck), the hivemind have instead seemed to favor Whir Prison. Especially after sussurrus_mtg climbed all the way to the top 2 of the trophy leaderboard in Magic Online Competitive Modern League.
In Bilbao, Louis Deltour got 2nd place and the deck also clinched two spots in the top 16, boasting an impressive 66% winrate on Day 2.

Whir Prison by Louis Deltour

Spells (39)
Ancient Stirrings
Bottled Cloister
Chalice of the Void
Crucible of Worlds
Damping Sphere
Engineered Explosives
Ensnaring Bridge
Mishra’s Bauble
Mox Opal
Pyrite Spellbomb
Sorcerous Spyglass
Tormod’s Crypt
Welding Jar
Whir of Invention
Witchbane Orb
Lands (21)
Academy Ruins
Botanical Sanctum
Glimmervoid
Inventors’ Fair
Ipnu Rivulet
Spire of Industry
Tectonic Edge
Tolaria West
Island

Sideboard (15)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Sai, Master Thopterist
Slaughter Pact
Sorcerous Spyglass
Spellskite
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Torpor Orb
Unmoored Ego

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Since Izzet Phoenix is basically just a creature deck at the end of the day, locking them down with Ensnaring BridgeEnsnaring Bridge is a decent strategy. After all, they usually run no answers to non-creature threats in the maindeck. This is one of the matchups where the techy Echoing TruthEchoing Truth from Matignon and Kassis helps the most.

Chalice of the Void from Masters 25

Chalice of the Void from Masters 25

Whir Prison also utilizes Chalice of the VoidChalice of the Void as another tool that stops a bunch of cards from Izzet. Though, if we are interested in a Chalice on 1 early in the game, then follow up with threats that dodge Lightning BoltLightning Bolt, Eldrazi could be another option. I played with versions that splash white for Thalia, Guardian of ThrabenThalia, Guardian of Thraben, Leonin ArbiterLeonin Arbiter and Eldrazi DisplacerEldrazi Displacer, but the mana base was shaky and after I tried both versions, I like the colorless one for its consistency:

Eldrazi Stompy

Creatures (22)
Eldrazi Mimic
Eternal Scourge
Matter Reshaper
Reality Smasher
Smuggler’s Copter
Thought-Knot Seer

Spells (15)
Chalice of the Void
Serum Powder
Simian Spirit Guide
Dismember
Lands (23)
Ghost Quarter
Zhalfirin Void
Blinkmoth Nexus
Eldrazi Temple
Gemstone Caverns
Mutavault
Wastes
Scavenger Grounds

Sideboard (15)
Damping Sphere
Leyline of the Void
Ratchet Bomb
Spatial Contortion
Torpor Orb
Warping Wail

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This Eldrazi deck is one that is greatly improved by the London mulligan rule, but already sees results. I will keep my eye on this one. As a bonus, Eternal ScourgeEternal Scourge is even a horror.

Other options

Everyone wants to beat Arclight Phoenix

Ceremonious Rejection from Kaladesh

Ceremonious Rejection from Kaladesh

Lately Tron has seen a lot more play, and I can only assume this is due to a favored matchup against Phoenix. It can certainly beat a Thing in the IceThing in the Ice and has tools to fight against Blood MoonBlood Moon postboard.
But with an increase in artifact decks, Tron and even those Eldrazi decks, Ceremonious RejectionCeremonious Rejections earn a more widespread welcome in the Phoenix lists. So maybe they will soon have these matchups covered.

This is why, if you truly want to metagame against Izzet Phoenix, you have to zig when they zag. If they focus on Dredge hate and Ceremonious RejectionCeremonious Rejection, maybe you want to beat them with combo.
Ad NauseamAd Nauseam also got some buzz lately, and with its defensive measures, it should be able to race Izzet Phoenix often enough. That’s certainly also a way to punish people for trying to beat Phoenix with big mana decks.

Or maybe you want to look at what leaves the sideboards. It seems like the formerly stock two copies of Dragon’s ClawDragon’s Claw are seeping out of the metagame. And if DispelDispel turns into Ceremonious RejectionCeremonious Rejection maybe you actually want to play Burn again. It did struggle against Dredge lately, but it seems like Tron takes up more of Dredges metagame share, which is certainly very good news for Burn players. It even is also a deck that can run Ensnaring BridgeEnsnaring Bridge.

I do believe metagaming in Modern is viable, but mostly it’s about figuring out which sideboard cards people don’t currently run. If you want to pick a deck for the predicted metagame, you also have to make sure that your deck is actually powerful and that you know it well. Because we are still playing Modern and that means all sorts of random nonsense will be thrown your way.

 

This article was written by Simon Nielsen in a media collaboration with mtgmintcard.com