Bomb the Birds - Beating Modern Phoenix

by Simon Nielsen on 28 March 2019, Thursday

Simon Nielsen

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 two spots in the top 8 of GP Bilbao, a whopping four spots at GP Tampa Bay and like a thieving magpie they even flew away with shiny trophies in Bilbao and the SCG Open in Philadelphia.


Since Faithless Looting gracefully snuck past the banhammer, we will have to settle in with it for the near future of Modern. That means events that are mostly dominated by Izzet Arclight 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!

How they build a bird

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 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 Phoenix, Thing in the Ice and a couple Crackling Drakes.


This is the stock list of Izzet Phoenix. Out of the eight copies of the deck that top 8’ed the two Grands Prix and the Open this weekend, three 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”

 

4 Arclight Phoenix

4 Thing in the Ice

2 Crackling Drake

2 Snapcaster Mage

4 Faithless Looting

1 Gut Shot

2 Surgical Extraction

4 Thought Scour

2 Lightning Axe

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Manamorphose

4 Opt

1 Pyromancer Ascension

4 Serum Visions

4 Spirebluff Canal

4 Scalding Tarn

2 Flooded Strand

3 Steam Vents

3 Island

2 Mountain

 

2 Abrade

1 Beacon Bolt

2 Blood Moon

2 Dispel

2 Dragon's Claw

1 Keranos, God of Storms

1 Shatterstorm

2 Spell Pierce

1 Surgical Extraction

1 Young Pyromancer


Not only does this deck present nut-draws like two Arclight Phoenix ready to attack on turn two, or a transformed Thing in the Ice that gets to bash for 7 damage 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 Extraction) because it finds them easily when needed. And if they aren’t good, they can just get pitched to Faithless Looting.


Both Eli Kassis and GP Bilbao winner Guillaume Matignon played 1 maindeck Echoing Truth. And given how flexible an answer it is, it wouldn’t surprise me if this started to establish a trend.

The usual UR Phoenix sideboards

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

16 Blood Moon

14 Spell Pierce

13 Dispel

11 Abrade

7 Shatterstorm

7 Beacon Bolt

7 Dragon’s Claw

7 Anger of the Gods

6 Surgical Extraction

6 Ravenous Trap

5 Ceremonious Rejection

3 Flame Slash

3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

2 Threads of Disloyalty

2 Engineered Explosives

2 Shattering Spree

2 Hurkyll’s Recall

1 Young Pyromancer

1 Keranos, God of Storms

1 Negate

1 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 Moons in their sideboard. They are also quite likely to run two Dispel as well as two Spell Pierce.


Because of the rising popularity of Whir Prison, almost all Izzet Phoenix lists started to employ one Shatterstorm in their sideboards. And Dredge players not only need to watch out for the 3 Surgical Extraction in the 75 of Phoenix. They also need to be aware of the single Ravenous 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)

 

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 Extraction being the clear best. But Izzet Phoenix excels at presenting different threats quickly, so you also need to be aware of Thing in the Ice, Pyromancer’s Ascension and even Blood 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 Day Two of this weekend’s GPs.


The most important thing isn’t actually to worry about Faithless Looting and Arclight 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 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 Bolt is just the end right there. You can’t really rely on Lightning Bolt to get the job done anymore, which is why some decks, like my Red-Green Valakut list and even Izzet Phoenix itself, have started to maindeck Flame Slash.


The important thing is also to not overdo it. Modern is still very broad, so you can’t quite afford to play no Lightning Bolts and all Flame Slashes, but playing a split is decent.

Harden your scales: A relevant example of tuning

 

How about a deck like Hardened Scales? It’s a creature deck, so it absolutely needs to deal with Thing 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 Scales in play and get lucky.


This is the Scales list I played at GP Liverpool in late 2018:

 

“Simon Nielsen’s Hardened Scales”

 

4 Arcbound Worker

4 Arcbound Ravager

4 Hangarback Walker

4 Walking Ballista

3 Steel Overseer

2 Spellskite

4 Mox Opal

3 Welding Jar

4 Ancient Stirrings

4 Hardened Scales

3 Animation Module

1 Dismember

6 Forest

2 Horizon Canopy

3 Darksteel Citadel

2 Blinkmoth Nexus

4 Inkmoth Nexus

2 Llanowar Reborn

1 Pendelhaven

 

3 Damping Sphere

1 Dismember

1 Evolutionary Leap

2 Karn, Scion of Urza

4 Natural State

2 Tormod's Crypt

2 Grafdigger's Cage

 

I cut out some of the inconsequential maindeck cards like Throne of Geth and Evolutionary Leap which allowed me to fit in some anti-Phoenix tech. I also got tired of losing my Steel Overseer to Gut 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 Dismember to the maindeck to surprise-kill a Thing in the Ice. I had also been very impressed with my sideboarded Spellskite, so I didn’t waste the opportunity to move them maindeck. It almost blanks Lightning Bolt and notably is a Horror, so it stays in play after Thing 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 Ravager you can load up a bunch of counters on the Spellskite to make it bigger than Awoken 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, Spellskite protects even better than Welding Jar on the turn where you want to go all in with Arcbound Ravager. And Dismember can be used as way to sacrifice a big Hangarback Walker now that I have given up other sacrifice outlets.

 

Metagame deck choices

 

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 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 Two.

 

“Louis-Samuel Deltour’s Whir Prison”

 

4 Ancient Stirrings

1 Bottled Cloister

4 Chalice of the Void

1 Crucible of Worlds

1 Damping Sphere

2 Engineered Explosives

4 Ensnaring Bridge

4 Mishra's Bauble

4 Mox Opal

1 Pyrite Spellbomb

2 Sorcerous Spyglass

2 Tormod's Crypt

4 Welding Jar

4 Whir of Invention

1 Witchbane Orb

1 Academy Ruins

4 Botanical Sanctum

3 Glimmervoid

1 Inventors' Fair

1 Ipnu Rivulet

4 Spire of Industry

1 Tectonic Edge

4 Tolaria West

2 Island

 

1 Grafdigger's Cage

2 Sai, Master Thopterist

1 Slaughter Pact

2 Sorcerous Spyglass

4 Spellskite

3 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas

1 Torpor Orb

1 Unmoored Ego

 

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

Whir Prison also utilizes Chalice 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 Bolt, Eldrazi could be another option.

 

I played with versions that splash white for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Leonin Arbiter and Eldrazi Displacer, but the mana base was shaky and after I tried both versions, I like the colorless one for its consistency:

 

Simon Nielsen’s Eldrazi Stompy

 

4 Eldrazi Mimic

4 Eternal Scourge

4 Matter Reshaper

4 Reality Smasher

2 Smuggler's Copter

4 Thought-Knot Seer

4 Chalice of the Void

4 Serum Powder

4 Simian Spirit Guide

3 Dismember

4 Ghost Quarter

4 Zhalfirin Void

2 Blinkmoth Nexus

4 Eldrazi Temple

3 Gemstone Caverns

2 Mutavault

2 Wastes

2 Scavenger Grounds

 

2 Damping Sphere

4 Leyline of the Void

3 Ratchet Bomb

2 Spatial Contortion

2 Torpor Orb

2 Warping Wail

 

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 Scourge is even a horror.

Other options

 

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 Ice and has tools to fight against Blood Moon postboard.


But with an increase in artifact decks, Tron and even those Eldrazi decks, Ceremonious 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 graveyard hate for Dredge plus Ceremonious Rejections, maybe you want to beat them with combo decks.


Ad 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 Claw are seeping out of the metagame. And if Dispel turns into Ceremonious Rejection maybe you actually want to play Burn again. It did struggle against Dredge lately, but it seems like Tron takes up more of Dredge’s metagame share, which is certainly very good news for Burn players. It even is also a deck that can run Ensnaring 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; after all, 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 mage.market.







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