(Editor’s Note: This article was written before the release of all cards in Strixhaven: School of Mages)
Last weekend I won the ManaTraders Pioneer Series playing Izzet Phoenix and today I’ll tell you all about the deck!
Izzet Phoenix After the Banned and Restricted
This deck has been on and off the format since its very beginning and after the most recent bans, the metagame is at a spot where Izzet Phoenix can really shine.
To better explain my build and card selection, I want to first talk about the version of the deck you are more likely to come across in a League or Challenge. The two most powerful cards of the deck are 《Arclight Phoenix》 and 《Treasure Cruise》 and at first look it makes sense to try to build around and exploit what these cards do.
How do you do that? by putting as many cards in your graveyard as fast as possible while making sure you are casting enough cheap instants or sorceries to return the 《Arclight Phoenix》. This is why we see many lists running self-milling effects like 《Tome Scour》 or 《Merfolk Secretkeeper》 and cards like 《Izzet Charm》 are also played here as a 4-of to add extra discard enables for the 《Arclight Phoenix》.
Why don’t I like this version? These cards don’t replace themselves, leaving you with less cards in hand after casting them and this makes the deck inconsistent because when you are not naturally drawing 《Treasure Cruise》 or when you are not milling enough 《Arclight Phoenix》 to win the game quick, you find yourself out of gas.
By instead playing more cantrips (cards that replace themselves when you cast them) we depend less on a fast and explosive hand, we are less vulnerable to graveyard hate and we gain the inevitability to see or draw most of our deck and find all the tools needed to win most games.
Deck List: Izzet Phoenix
Now that I’ve explain my approach to the deck, let’s review the card choices:
There is a thin balance between wanting to make land drops for at least 5-6 turns and not flooding out. This is why I like 《Spikefield Hazard》 so much, worse than a 《Mountain》 and worse than 《Wild Slash》 it’s still great for offering the flexibility to be both.
1 mana Removals
This is the base to be great against 《Llanowar Elves》 decks and basically any creature deck. You could increase these numbers and have an even better match there, but I prefer investing the cards elsewhere to cover more areas of the metagame.
This is the core of the deck and what helps you see 50-90% of the deck every game. You could change these numbers or even try different options. I can’t tell you 《Quicken》 is better than 《Crash Through》 or 《Thrill of Possibility》 is better than 《Discovery/Dispersal》 every time you cast them, but I’d advice to keep the number of cantrips of the deck high because these are the cards that give you consistency.
《Treasure Cruise》 is what pushes you ahead in games, but sometimes is hard to resolve the spell, especially against 《Thoughtseize》 or counter spells. That’s why I like having a fifth card on this role and without the milling cards, I don’t think there is enough support to play 《Dig Through Time》 or 《Finale of Promise》, even though both are very powerful cards that could fit on the deck’s plan.
These are all bullets to help in different situations. Because the deck is so good at digging through all its cards you are likely enough to find what you need, so it’s important to plan ahead!
One note on 《Unsubstantiate》, this card is criminally underplayed. A lot of people playing the deck agree you need a catch all answer and have maindeck 《Brazen Borrower》 for that. 《Unsubstantiate》 doesn’t deal with non-creature permanents but it deals with the stack, which is way more important in my opinion.
No need to say much else about the 《Arclight Phoenix》, but the discussion I keep having with people is about the 《Crackling Drake》. 《Thing in the Ice》 is a great against creature decks with little interaction (not great against 《Fatal Push》) but these matches are already good and I think the main reason why this deck is not more popular is because people are not trying hard enough to beat other archetypes.
《Crackling Drake》 on turn 4 draws you a card and it needs to be dealt with immediately, which is already harder to do than dealing with 《Thing in the Ice》 that doesn’t replace itself and can be ignored for a couple turns. Then you have the 《Splinter Twin》 combo to win out of nowhere with 《Maximize Velocity》.
It sounds silly, you probably haven’t seen it and if you have you were probably thinking how lucky they were to have those two cards at the exact right time. In reality this happens way more often than you think, against 5-colors Niv-Mizzet or various slow midrange or control decks games go long and without pressure all you do is basically chain cantrip after cantrip, returning some 《Arclight Phoenix》 to keep them busy during the midgame and set up that one turn kill.
It’s common enough to cast 《Maximize Velocity》 on 《Crackling Drake》 while holding 《Unsubstantiate》 for protection during a turn they already had to use some of their mana to deal with 《Arclight Phoenix》. I am talking about turn 7-9 with a library of 10-20 cards.
I was running 《Expedite》 instead of 《Maximize Velocity》 before, because it’s also a cantrip and therefore better when you don’t need it and can simply cycle it (can even be casted on an opponent’s creature), but I had too many awkward scenarios where I had to cast it early or simply couldn’t take it off 《Strategic Planning》 or 《Pieces of the Puzzle》 and got myself into a position where I couldn’t set up a Haste 《Crackling Drake》 anymore and knew they would die to all the sorcery speed removal my opponents were likely holding.
That’s why I think 《Maximize Velocity》 is better in the deck, can easily be ignored early when you see it with 《Strategic Planning》 or can discard it to 《Lightning Axe》 or 《Thrill of Possibility》 and still get its effect later in the game when you need it.
General Notes About the Sideboard
The deck has a proactive plan and as long as you can use the burn spells efficiently, there is not much changing needed.
《Brazen Borrower》 is a much better sideboard card because they are more likely to have hate cards like 《Leyline of the Void》 or 《Grafdigger’s Cage》 post sideboard, making 《Brazen Borrower》 a better answer than 《Unsubstantiate》 and making the 3/1 body more relevant when both players are packing more answers and the games slow down.
Diversifying threats is also important post sideboard. I’ve tried 《Chandra, Torch of Defiance》, 《Ral, Izzet Viceroy》, 《Goblin Rabblemaster》, 《Glorybringer》, 《Young Pyromancer》, 《Improbable Alliance》, 《Saheeli, Sublime Artificer》 and many others.
There are good and bad arguments about these and it will be a matter of metagame and personal preference. Dimir control is popular at the moment and that’s why I prefer 《Young Pyromancer》 right now: It’s cheap so it plays better against counterspells, the 1/1 tokens are relevant because they don’t have many blockers and it could snowball very fast.
Matches and Sideboard Guide
Niv to Light
They are a very slow deck and games normally go long. They rarely run out of gas, but can’t really cast more than one spell per turn. Normally you try to pressure them with 《Arclight Phoenix》 and they spend their mana answering those, they have many answers but basically everything they do is at sorcery speed.
Use 《Unsubstantiate》 and 《Izzet Charm》 to slow down 《Bring to Light》 and even if they resolve 《Niv-Mizzet Reborn》, you can get through it with 《Lightning Axe》 plus a 《Arclight Phoenix》 attack or a second burn spell. They will draw 2-3 cards every time they resolve a 《Niv-Mizzet Reborn》, but normally you stay ahead in cards thanks to 《Treasure Cruise》. Eventually there is an opening to win with a haste 《Crackling Drake》.
These pure control decks are normally a nightmare for the deck because they have so many answers for the few threats we have and also counter spells for 《Treasure Cruise》, but right now the builds aren’t as bad for us because their removal suit is normally 《Fatal Push》, 《Heartless Act》, 《Hero’s Downfall》 and 《Shadows’ Verdict》.
None of these deals efficiently with 《Arclight Phoenix》 so it’s actually reasonable to win games by continuously returning and attacking with 《Arclight Phoenix》. If they start packing more 《Extinction Event》 and 《Vraska’s Contempt》, game one will become way harder, but a deck like that can’t make those changes without affecting their performance against other decks, so there have to be a balance in the metagame.
I like keeping one 《Lightning Axe》 because they could bring 《Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet》. It also deals with 《Shark Typhoon》 or 《Notion Thief》, which you need to keep in mind and make sure you are never tapping out to draw cards when they have the mana for it. They could also have 《Cry of the Carnarium》 so try not to expose too many 《Arclight Phoenix》 to it if possible.
They normally play at instant speed so it’s hard to get them with 《Maximize Velocity》, but they also generate less value than Niv to Light so it’s easier to win the value war and win with 《Crackling Drake》 with maybe one counter spell back up once they’ve run out of gas.
They have a hard time sticking a creature early through all the burn and waiting to set up a big creature with protection is normally worse because you are doing more dangerous things with that extra time. As a general rule, 《Sram, Senior Edificer》 needs to be killed on sight, but you can leave basically any other creature around for a turn or two if they are only attacking for 1 or 2 and force them into awkward scenarios where they can’t cast their aura spells or risk to get 2×1’d
4C Lukka Yorion
This match plays out in different ways because of the nature of their 80 cards deck. Sometimes they cast threat after threat on curve and you can’t keep up and other times they don’t do anything relevant and simply die. 《Narset, Parter of Veils》 is annoying but beatable, save 《Strategic Planning》 if possible because that’s the cantrip 《Narset, Parter of Veils》 can’t stop.
《Arclight Phoenix》 plan is not very reliable here because they can punish you hard for tapping out with 《Transmogrify》 their tokens (you can easily stop this with a burn spell in response if you leave the mana for it), 《Anger of the Gods》 or even 《Chained to the Rocks》. Haste 《Crackling Drake》 is the best way, even if this isn’t easy either because they have many flying creatures (《Shark Typhoon》, birds from 《The Raven’s Warning》 and the same 《Yorion, Sky Nomad》).
The truth is that beating a good hand is going to be almost impossible, but we still have the tools to play smart and beat their average hands.
I haven’t try this plan out enough to tell you I am confident it’s correct, but this is how I’ve been sideboarding in the match. I am still experimenting and on the play I sometimes leave 2 《Arclight Phoenix》, but in general I feel I need to answer what they are doing because otherwise just doing my thing is not enough to win.
They are more resourceful than a linear aggro deck, but I still think they fall into the category of decks we prey upon. They struggle to keep a board presence and grinding through is not as reliable against 《Arclight Phoenix》 and 《Treasure Cruise》.
They normally try to interact more post sideboard and they aren’t aggressive enough so I cut one 《Lightning Axe》 to make sure I don’t run out of gas.
Mono Black Aggro
A good curve and a timely 《Thoughtseize》 beats you, but this is normally a great match.
I don’t like cutting 《Pieces of the Puzzle》 because they are likely brining in more discard, expensive threats and removing some of the cheap creatures that are bad against 《Magma Spray》 and 《Anger of the Gods》.
Most important about the match is the fact they don’t deal efficiently with 《Arclight Phoenix》 so we can keep bringing it back and blocking with it until we’ve generated enough value to pull ahead.
Don’t let them cast 《Village Rites》 if you can just kill their creatures during your turn or try to make it awkward for them to leave the mana open every turn.
Post sideboard the game normally slows down. They cut 《Young Pyromancer》 and bring in extra discard and 《Soul-Guide Lantern》. 《Wild Slash》 doesn’t deal with 《Dreadhorde Arcanist》 so I am happy to replace it with more efficient answers in 《Magma Spray》 and 《Aether Gust》.
They have a harder time killing you, but same is true for you because 《Soul-Guide Lantern》 gives 《Arclight Phoenix》 a hard time. They have to use it aggressively to also stop you from casting 《Treasure Cruise》 and because they aren’t putting pressure that also gives you the time to build up again and once the first 《Treasure Cruise》 resolves it’s normally an easy road from there.
This is also very favoured for Izzet Phoenix. Killing the Elf on turn 1 really slows them down, they have a hard time keeping a reasonable board and even if they resolve 《Winota, Joiner of Forces》 with a couple of attackers, we have the one mana answer for it before combat. Save those 《Lightning Axe》 if possible. They don’t interact with your plan and even if they bring some hate post sideboard they are hurting their plan to do so.
This match is not good. Even if we have the removal for their creatures, they normally deal some damage before dying with trigger abilities or haste and they can finish us up with burn. It’s a race we can win, but normally they are faster.
I don’t like 《Aether Gust》 here because you are using two mana to deal with a one or two mana spell or permanent, which isn’t great. If they bring in 《Chained to the Rocks》 I’d bring some 《Annul》 because it also deals with 《Eidolon of the Great Revel》 which is very problematic. 《Cerulean Drake》 is great here and I’d have more if burn becomes too popular.
Mono Green Stompy
I like this pairing because they are a very explosive deck that more often than not doesn’t have a winning hand and by dealing with their Elves on turn one we are already making their game plan so much harder. They don’t interact too well with what we are doing, burn spells are great against the cheap creatures, fliers deal with their planeswalkers and if they can’t generate the mana off 《Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx》 they have a hard time casting 《Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider》 and large 《Voracious Hydra》.
They don’t improve much with sideboard, but we get extra answers for their big spells.
This is the hardest match. We don’t have the clock to race them and barely have any interaction to stop them from going off. Lotus Combo is not in a great position, but still sees some play and helps bringing balance to the metagame by having a good matchup against the slower decks.
You need to put pressure early even if this means tapping out because most of our interaction is just mana taxing and they can generate so much mana the turn they go off so the land-go game isn’t going to work. For the same reason, you shouldn’t be afraid to cast 《Spell Pierce》 or 《Mystical Dispute》 in their early plays.
I like the flexibility of the deck to adapt and how changing just one or two cards could make a difference because the deck is really good at drawing cards and finding the right answer. Strixhaven: School of Mages spoilers are coming out every day and we are probably getting new cards from there as well.
We are also getting 《Prismari Command》. This reminds me of 《Izzet Charm》, but for an extra mana we get that draw two, discard two effect without losing cards in the process because we also get to choose an additional mode in the process.
《Rowan, Scholar of Sparks》 is also interesting. This could cover that spot for extra threat coming from the sideboard. Being a Planeswalker makes it harder to deal with than say 《Goblin Rabblemaster》, you still get that extra damage you would from a Goblin Token and getting to cast cheap 《Negate》, 《Strategic Planning》 or 《Prismari Command》 is no joke either.
I am really looking forward this deck picking up in popularity and hopefully this article helped convincing you to give it a try. Thanks for reading!
Fabrizio Anteri (Twitter)