Unsurprisingly, my favorite Modern deck heading into the Mythic Championship is Izzet Phoenix. It’s the deck with which I have the most experience and I think it’s one of the strongest strategies in the format, both of which are great reasons to choose a deck for a tournament!
Today, I’ll be walking through my final build and discussing some of the close card choices I had to make, and you should have a better understanding of how to tune and re-position the deck for your own playstyle and/or changes in the metagame.
Hooked on Phoenix Worked for Me
I tried out a lot of different configurations and pieces of tech and ultimately I arrived close to back at the beginning but with a stronger understanding of exactly why I was playing with each card. I wanted to innovate and have some new tech for the event, but ultimately the thousands of known tournament lists refined the process considerably.
I tried out some neat technology, but ultimately it was more flashy than consistently good:
Both were decent but didn’t end up making the cut. Here’s what did:
4 Scalding Tarn 4 Spirebluff Canal 3 Steam Vents 3 Island (335) 2 Mountain (343) 1 Flooded Strand 1 Polluted Delta 4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror 4 Arclight Phoenix 4 Thought Scour 4 Faithless Looting 4 Serum Visions 2 Sleight of Hand 4 Lightning Bolt 1 Flame Slash 1 Magmatic Sinkhole 3 Surgical Extraction 4 Manamorphose 3 Aria of Flame 2 Finale of Promise 2 Opt Sideboard 2 Force of Negation 2 Spell Pierce 2 Alpine Moon 2 Young Pyromancer 2 Ravenous Trap 2 Abrade 1 Narset, Parter of Veils 1 Anger of the Gods 1 Fry
The deck is very close to “Stock Phoenix,” which is a good thing because the deck is a known commodity. The key is to tune it up to be as good as possible for a specific event. There’s no way I was going to mess with the core of the deck:
All maxed out at four copies (with a 2/2 split on Opt + Sleight of Hand as a concession to Finale of Promise), we are at 32 spells and 18 lands, which doesn’t leave many spots to mess with.
The “stock” number of each of these is 3/2 apiece, which really only leaves five spots to play with. Some of these spots need to be devoted to removal because we can’t just have four Bolts.
I like these because they are flexible and efficient. Sinkhole can deal with planeswalkers, which increases its value in many post-sideboard matchups. I like that both can deal with relatively high-toughness creatures like Thing in the Ice, Thought-Knot Seer, etc.
Some lists play Surgical and some don’t. I decided to play a lot of Surgicals, a total of three copies. These slots are typically reserved for “free spells” in some way. The tension is typically between playing Surgical, Gut Shot / Lava Dart, or a split of the three.
Overall, I’ve been underwhelmed by Lava Dart and Gut Shot. I mean, neither would typically make the main deck of a list I would play because they are fairly low-impact. The most significant aspect of these slots is that they can be played for free to generate burst synergies in the deck, such as flipping a Thing in the Ice, bringing back Phoenix, and spamming damage with Aria of Flame while comboing off.
I do believe the impact of Surgical tends to be higher impact, especially against the decks where it really matters such as Dredge or Phoenix. It’s not to say that Gut Shot on a Thalia or Blighted Agent isn’t great, but I believe graveyard synergies represent a larger percentage of the metagame.
I reached this conclusion based on looking at the metagame percentages and asking players attending the event how they thought the field would look. Most players agreed that Dredge and Phoenix were Tier 1 decks for the event, and so I decided to hedge in that direction.
I polled the room for what constitutes a “Tier 1” deck for the event and the consensus was: U/W Control, Izzet Phoenix, Hogaak, Dredge, and Humans.
I think the core of the Phoenix deck is extremely efficient and synergistic. With that said, I don’t like to go “overboard” and dilute my synergy too much. I want to do my thing and throw up speed bumps to keep my opponent from racing. It’s Modern, and a lot of matchups feel like two ships passing in the night, which makes having cheap potent interaction go a long way. We don’t need to grind most decks out, we just need to trip them long enough for our Izzet stuff to end the game.
There is no individual sideboard card that shuts down all routes to victory at once. In fact, most hate only cripples one of the three routes, which leaves two open. I want to stay spread out across my three plans, Phoenix, Thing in the Ice, and Aria of Flame and bring in cards capable of generating the biggest swings for the cheapest cost.
I’m not looking to play a grindy game if I can avoid it. Despite being an awesome Xerox deck, Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of actual card advantage to lean on. One way to approach the sideboard is to bring in a bunch of grindy cards, but it’s always at the cost of speed and fluidity. Since Phoenix doesn’t tend to be favored in long games, I’m focused on seizing the early initiative and trying to ride it to victory.
After a lot of testing, I’ve determined the matchup is horrendous for Phoenix and there isn’t much that can realistically be done to change that without taking massive amounts of main deck and sideboard slots and thus making the deck worse against the rest of the field. In Modern, pretty much every deck has a nightmare matchup that keeps us up at night wishing, thinking, and plotting a way to gain points. If there’s a solution, I didn’t find it.
I tried out a lot of cards. The plans I see from other guides are bringing in a bunch of three-drop grindy cards like Seasoned Pyromancer, Saheeli, or Narset. Typically, decks devote three slots to these drops. I didn’t feel like this plan worked. In fact, I thought it played to U/W’s benefit.
I decided to keep the focus on being fast and getting under rather than trying to play their game. I have cheap permission (Spell Pierce and Force of Negation) to keep their ‘walkers off the board and cheap threats (Young Peezy) which can be deployed early with Spell Pierce backup.
To be fair, my testing was against Greg Orange, Andrew Elenbogen, and Jackson Hicks (often all talking through the U/W Control plays at the same time!), which is kind of like an unreasonably good super opponent, but my takeaway was if U/W plays perfectly then “getting grindy” is unlikely to work out. While I think there is merit to a strong player taking such an approach at an Open or MagicFest, I wasn’t going to press my luck and assume I’d play against weak U/W players with bad lists at the Mythic Championship.
If I play against a lot of Hallowed Fountains, I don’t have high expectations for my final record, but I think the same is true of most Modern decks against one thing or another.
I’ve got the three maindeck Surgical Extractions, which really shine in this matchup.
Finale is pretty clunky and not great at recurring our graveyard hate. Sure, you can recur a Surgical Extraction, but I’m not excited about sorcery-speed Surgical on turn three. I want to keep them at bay long enough to hit critical mass and win.
The same core cards are great against traditional Dredge, but unlike Hogaak, my cheap permission interacts with more of their spells.
The hope is to interact as much as possible and keep Dredge in check long enough for us to set up our own broken stuff and take the game.
Humans are a close matchup. Since I’ve hedged against graveyard decks with those maindeck Surgical Extractions instead of Gut Shots, I’m likely an underdog overall. I want to bring in more removal to slow them down long enough to come over the top with my big swingy effects. Surgicals are easy to board out because they don’t do much. Aria is a little slow and doesn’t interact with their clock and so it’s the worst win condition of the bunch and I shave one.
The Phoenix mirror is the trickiest matchup to sideboard for because we have a lot of options to choose from. I have as many as eight reasonable cards to bring in, but I would always bring in these four.
Fry is insane and I wish I had room for a second copy. It blows up Thing in the Ice and all the blue planeswalkers. The Force of Negations and Young Pyromancers are also on the table. Whether or not to bring them in (and in what quantity) would have a lot to do with the cards I saw in previous games. If they have a lot of planeswalkers and enchantments, the value of these cards increases. I also think the value of Force of Negation improves on the draw and the value of Young Pyromancer increases on the play. The cards I’d be most likely to cut if I were boarding beyond 4 cards are Sleight of Hands and up to two copies of Faithless Looting.
These five matchups play a huge part in determining how my deck is built and tuned. I’ve basically showcased 13 sideboard cards across these five matchups and most of them multiple times.
The last slots are devoted to another dedicated hate card:
I’m basically only using these against Valakut and Tron.
The two copies of Abrade also serve as my interaction with various artifact decks. It’s important that both are instants, which allows them to interact with Mycosynth Lattice and Chalice of the Void with one counter. Abrade is also nice because it allows me to pad the number of removal spells in my 75 against creature decks (which is important because I’m maindecking those three Surgical Extractions).
There are obviously dozens of decks I could play against beyond the Tier 1, but hopefully the raw power and synergy of my strategy will allow me to hang in those games and come over the top. It’s also worth noting that cards like Spell Pierce, Force of Negation, and Abrade provide a lot of coverage against a wide range of decks.
Counterspells, graveyard hate, removal, broken combos, and tons of card draw and filtering… What a novel concept! It sounds like exactly what I’d want to do in Modern, and so, I am!