Pioneer Phoenix Deck Guide

Jacob Nagro

Jacob Nagro

(Editor’s Note: this article was written before the Pioneer Banned Announcement and 《Felidar Guardian》, 《Oath of Nissa》, and 《Leyline of Abundance》 were banned.)

Introduction

Last week Wizards of the Coast announced Pioneer, Magic’s newest format ripe with powerful cards from Return to Ravnica forwards. In that last week we’ve already been able to play the format on Magic Online, including a Pioneer Challenge last Sunday, and this Friday we will have a Player’s Tour Qualifier that I’m incredibly excited to compete in. On the first day that Pioneer was playable on MTGO I decided to stream some new decks. I started off with 3 of my own brews but near the end of the stream a viewer and friend of mine, Nathaniel Knox, asked if I could try out his Izzet Phoenix decklist.

Arclight PhoenixLightning Axe

This was the list I played and I went 5-0 in my first league, playing against 5 creature based strategies, 2 of which being 4 color Saheeli-Felidar combo decks. The deck had a lot of features that impressed me early on in the Pioneer format, the first of which being 《Lightning Axe》. The removal in Pioneer is not amazing, we have 《Fatal Push》, but without Fetchlands you have to jump through some hoops to enable Revolt. There isn’t a catchall card like 《Path to Exile》, and the next best cards are things like 《Assassin’s Trophy》 or sorcery speed white cards like 《Declaration in Stone》 or 《Detention Sphere》, but for the most the removal in Pioneer is extremely conditional. When I played my first league I noticed this deck was utilizing the full 4 《Lightning Axe》 much better than I thought it would.

Obviously discarding something besides a 《Arclight Phoenix》 doesn’t feel great, but between triggering a Phoenix, getting a 《Thing in the Ice》 to flip, or fueling a 《Treasure Cruise》, the deck can make up for the fact that you were frequently 2 for 1ing yourself. 《Lightning Axe》 seems to be good enough at removing a significant portion of the creatures you’ll see in Pioneer, and for 1 mana at instant speed that puts it in a unique position over just about every other removal spell.

Thing in the Ice

The next card that seriously impressed me was 《Thing in the Ice》. Another feature of the format being low on removal is that usually my 《Thing in the Ice》 just survived and then easily dominated the game against any creature deck. Flipping Thing almost always results in the pace of the game switching to you being the aggressor, forcing chump blocks very quickly and pairing really well with burn spells or 《Arclight Phoenix》.

Treasure Cruise

The other card that impressed me heavily was 《Treasure Cruise》. This first version of Phoenix has an incredibly high number of cards that result in card disadvantage, but Cruise’s ability to refuel was really the glue holding the deck together. When this format was introduced with the Fetchlands banned, my first guess would have been that 《Dig Through Time》 and 《Treasure Cruise》 were going to be worse than they were in Standard, but now I’m of the opinion that both of them should be banned. I think Cruise is definitely better than Dig in this deck for a couple reasons. The first is that being able to cast Cruise for 1 mana is incredibly helpful for Thing and Phoenix. The second is that with the amount of discarding the deck has available to it you just heavily prefer the quantity of cards over quality.

Updating the Decklist

No 《Tome Scour》 Version

Tome Scour

In that first league I sided out all 4 《Tome Scour》s every game to bring in more creature interaction. I figured I wasn’t in a rush and as long as I’m trading resources my Cruises would still be good eventually. The games proved all of this to be true and even if I drew too many Cruises or had a copy too early to cast, the rummaging and looting of the deck could allow you to discard a Cruise if you needed. After some tuning I decided to post this list on Twitter omitting 《Tome Scour》 entirely.

Fiery Temper

I didn’t make a real sideboard because I still wasn’t sure what I was trying to beat. The lack of 《Fiery Temper》 in the first list was just a huge oversight, and it’s just another great piece of the deck now. Not only do you discard it for value all the time, but it frequently functions as a 1 mana spell to help Thing and Phoenix. With both Temper and Phoenix, the full 4 Axes feel better than ever.

No 《Merchant of the Vale》 Version

Merchant of the Vale

On Sunday I was glad to hear that this exact maindeck and a complete sideboard (also built by Nathaniel Knox) made it all the way to the finals of the first Pioneer Challenge. In addition to that, 2 other Izzet Phoenix decks made the top 8 of the challenge. I decided to try it some more myself and while I 4-1’d the first league I played with the updated list, I 0-2d the second and I felt some things had already shifted in the Pioneer format.

People were much more prepared for 《Thing in the Ice》 at this point, and they also were packing a lot of graveyard hate. This made me want to edit the deck a little bit. While a lot of people are really low on 《Merchant of the Vale》/Haggle to begin with, I liked it’s inclusion at first to just keep a high speed game plan to help against other fast decks. Now that people are interacting so much and the games are slower, I think it’s too hard to justify continuing to play it. So as of now this is my current decklist:

Strategic Planning

I’ve felt a little heavy on discard outlets in my previous games so I think 《Strategic Planning》 will play better than something like 《Thrill of Possibility》. As strange as it seems to play all 4 ofs, the cards in the deck are really hard to replace with anything else beyond 《Wild Slash》 and 《Strategic Planning》, and everything else feels incredibly important to how the deck functions.

Flame Sweep

I’m not confident on trying 《Flame Sweep》 over 《Anger of the Gods》, but I have found myself in some spots where I exile my own Phoenixes with Anger in a tight race, and a lot of the creature decks right now seem to be playing creatures that die to 2 damage anyways. This could easily change or perhaps the exile clause becomes more relevant so be on the lookout if you want to tune the deck yourself.

Playing and Sideboarding

While this deck can function very differently depending on its draws, you will likely notice you play different roles depending on the matchup. Here I’ll try to break down the different ways games can play out in against the decks I expect to face the most.

Izzet Phoenix

In this matchup an unchecked 《Thing in the Ice》 will end the game quickly. That being said, an 《Arclight Phoenix》 draw can line up very well against a removal heavy draw if they don’t have Cruise to back it up. I would likely try to resolve Thing as much as possible and force them to have an answer each time.

Against Izzet Phoenix

Out

Wild Slash Wild Slash Wild Slash Wild Slash
Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning

In

Fry Fry Leyline of the Void Brazen Borrower
Chandra, Torch of Defiance Chandra, Torch of Defiance Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute
FryChandra, Torch of DefianceBrazen Borrower

《Fry》, 《Chandra, Torch of Defiance》, and 《Brazen Borrower》 give us more answers to 《Thing in the Ice》. Borrower even has the unique ability to deal with Awoken Horror which would otherwise be quite difficult. Chandra also plays incredibly well against a removal heavy draw.

Leyline of the VoidMystical Dispute

This matchup is the main reason I’m trying 1 《Leyline of the Void》. I don’t want to be heavy on a card I can’t cast, but given I have plenty of ability to rid it from my hand, I don’t mind the first copy. If you do hit the ~11% chance to have it in any opening 7, it can completely warp the game in your favor if they don’t have a good 《Thing in the Ice》 draw. 《Mystical Dispute》 isn’t amazing but I think it’s worth including, don’t be scared to fire it off on 《Chart a Course》 though, as that is usually the primary way to sculpt a hand in the early turns.

Sultai Midrange

This is the deck that won the Pioneer Challenge defeating this deck in the finals. I don’t think the matchup is all that bad, it might even be favorable. Between 《Fatal Push》 and 《Oko, Thief of Crowns》 they have some favorable interactions against 《Thing in the Ice》, but 《Arclight Phoenix》 is incredibly potent against them, especially in game 1.

Against Sultai Midrange

Out

Izzet Charm Izzet Charm Izzet Charm Izzet Charm
Fiery Temper Strategic Planning Wild Slash Lightning Axe

In

The Royal Scions The Royal Scions Aether Gust Aether Gust
Chandra, Torch of Defiance Chandra, Torch of Defiance Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute
Thing in the IceTreasure CruiseThe Royal Scions

While I said 《Thing in the Ice》 doesn’t shine in this matchup, I’m still a fan of keeping them all in. Exchanging resources still plays well in the 《Treasure Cruise》 game, and if a copy ever goes unanswered the game can end quite quickly. It also is a great way to punish them for keeping a graveyard hate heavy hand. Either Planeswalker can warp your game plan into protecting it to an ultimate, and 《The Royal Scions》 has the added bonus of letting you loot something like 《Treasure Cruise》 away in the face of a card like 《Leyline of the Void》. 《Izzet Charm》’s looting mode becomes quite unnecessary, and in general the other 2 modes aren’t amazing either. Don’t be scared to hardcast your Phoenixes in this matchup and save your spells to buy it back later if they answer it.

White Humans

This deck has been popping up in leagues recently and it’s been harder to beat than I expected. They have very fast draws, and they usually have access to 《Declaration in Stone》 or 《Conclave Tribunal》 to punch a hole in the 《Thing in the Ice》 game plan. That said, your deck is still packed full of anti-creature tools and you should be a favorite, but their deck is also incredibly powerful, so give them credit when playing.

Against White Humans

Out

Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning

In

Flame Sweep Flame Sweep Fry Fry

You’ll be boarding out 《Strategic Planning》 a lot against creature decks. You really just want to be spending the early turns dealing with their creatures. 《Treasure Cruise》 may look like a liability in your hand at times, but if you don’t have Thing or Cruise when you’re just trying to pick off all their creatures you don’t really have a way to pull ahead. Keep in mind that they will probably have 《Gideon, Ally of Zendikar》 after board when deciding when to use 《Fry》 or 《Izzet Charm》.

4C Saheeli Combo

《Teferi, Time Raveler》 and Oko are likely going to be their best cards against you. They are their main answers to 《Thing in the Ice》, and Teferi stops your interaction with the combo, which you normally can easily do. There are a lot of different ways to build Saheeli Combo right now, so pay attention to what cards you see when sideboarding.

Against 4C Saheeli Combo

Out

Izzet Charm Izzet Charm Izzet Charm Izzet Charm
Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning

In

Fry Fry Spell Pierce Brazen Borrower
Chandra, Torch of Defiance Chandra, Torch of Defiance Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute

You’re really trying to snag a 3 mana Planeswalker with a 1 mana 《Spell Pierce》 or 《Mystical Dispute》. Beyond their Planeswalkers, just treat this like a creature matchup where you control them, a lot of the time 《Arclight Phoenix》 can punish them for playing a Planeswalker anyways. I really think that Saheeli-Felidar being the premier combo deck of Pioneer is a big part of why Izzet Phoenix is so well positioned.

Green Devotion

Currently I’ve seen this deck with blue, red, and no splashes. They utilize 《Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx》 and 《Leyline of Abundance》 to generate a lot of mana quickly. They can have some of the most absurd draws in the format, but they don’t always have them, and you can usually fight their mana creatures effectively. 《Thing in the Ice》 is your best card in this matchup because they play very few answers to it, and resetting all of their mana development usually puts them too far behind to rebuild before Awoken Horror kills them.

Against Green Devotion

Out

Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning Strategic Planning

In

Flame Sweep Flame Sweep Aether Gust Aether Gust

This might be the main matchup where 《Flame Sweep》 will be worse than 《Anger of the Gods》, due to 《Sylvan Caryatid》 and 《Nissa, Who Shakes the World》. It’s possible it’s not worth the inclusion at all as 《Flame Sweep》, or maybe depends on if you’re on the play or draw. If your opponent is playing with 《Burning-Tree Emissary》 it’s going to be a lot better though.

Other Matchups

OptChart a Course
Thing in the IceArclight PhoenixTreasure Cruise

While I’m sure you’ll encounter tons of other decks in Pioneer it’s hard to give specific sideboarding advice without knowing the specifics of their decks either. The biggest advice I can give is that I wouldn’t recommend boarding out 《Opt》, Chart, Thing, Phoenix, or Cruise. If you expect a lot of graveyard hate enchantments then going lower on Cruise is reasonable, but I’d probably be unlikely to even cut more than 1 given how powerful it is when it’s online.

Conclusion

I genuinely think this is the best deck you can be playing in Pioneer right now. I think it might not be long until that switches to an Oko Midrange deck however. The problem with playing a Midrange deck right now though is that some of your reactive cards might not line up favorably with the format this early when there are a lot of different archetypes. Izzet Phoenix on the other hand just has a great ability to sculpt it’s gameplan from matchup to matchup, while also often having a reasonably fast draw against some random combo deck. While I can’t say for certain I’ll be playing this list in the PTQ this Friday, it’s certainly my frontrunner.

Treasure CruiseDig Through Time

I’m going to guess at some point 《Treasure Cruise》 and 《Dig Through Time》 will be banned in Pioneer, and at that point I can’t imagine this deck showing as much success. I think if only Cruise were banned, 《Dig Through Time》 will be a reasonable replacement, but without either the deck will struggle too much in longer games.

Oko, Thief of Crowns

I also know it’s a little early but I hope 《Oko, Thief of Crowns》 gets banned soon as well. That card is just one of the best Planeswalkers, if not the best Planeswalker of all time. I think it could easily be the best card in Pioneer given the Delve cards are a little weaker than normal without the Fetchlands.

Beyond those three cards, it’s hard to tell how good certain combo decks are without first seeing how the meta adapts to them, so I think those are the only cards I’d like to see banned in the near future. I do expect a lot of the cards that were banned in Standard in the Kaladesh era to be banned eventually too however.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to ask me questions on Twitter @JacobNagro. I’ve also started streaming, and I intend to stream more frequently after Mythic Championship VI. You can find my stream at twitch.tv/banjocargo.

Jacob Nagro (Twitter / Twitch)

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Jacob Nagro

Jacob Nagro Jacob Nagro is a pro player from United States. His first appearance was GP Denver 2016 where he made top 8 with UW Flash. He keeps trying hard and his effort was paid off as the Silver Level Pro in the 2016-2017 season. He played a spicy RB Bridgevine deck featuring Greater Gargadon and Bloodghast at the Pro Tour 25th Anniversary. His team went 7th place and he became a Gold Level Pro with the impressive record. Read more articles by Jacob Nagro