The B&R announcement is in the books, which means it’s time for me to jump into Modern testing in preparation for Mythic Championship Barcelona. I didn’t want to invest too much time into testing a format that was inevitably going to change, but now that I know what the score is, it’s time to game. The week before the announcement I wrote about potential ban scenarios and basically laid out which deck I would play depending upon which card or cards got banned. While the DCI did not ban the cards I suggested (Looting, Stirrings, and Hogaak), I think my analysis of what drives the metagame and why was on point.
I said that if Looting were left alone then I would play a Looting deck and I see zero reason to deviate from that. In fact, the Izzet Phoenix decks have improved and condensed dramatically since I wrote that article, making it the clear choice for me based not only on the numbers, but also my playstyle preference.
I’ve been doing my homework over the past week and have looked at hundreds of Phoenix lists and crunched the numbers. Today, I’m sharing that information with you and explaining exactly how to approach building and tuning what is, in my opinion, the new best deck in Modern.
Why Izzet Phoenix?
My focus was narrowed to three decks: Izzet Phoenix, Mono-Red Phoenix and Dredge. All are solid choices in the abstract, but Izzet plays to my strengths. If I thought either deck was a significantly stronger choice then I would switch, but that’s not the case.
Izzet Phoenix was already a Tier 1 strategy before War of the Spark and Modern Horizons dumped a bunch of new staples into the format. While Hogaak ran away with the show, now that Bridge is banned the playing field has been leveled. In fact, the field might already have shifted into Phoenix’s favor before the ban, with four copies of Hogaak Bridgevine in Top 8 of the SCG Pittsburgh Team Trio event and 9 copies of Izzet Phoenix. Don’t underestimate how much Phoenix has gained in the past few months:
Between main and side, the deck is playing around 9-12 new printings (approximately 13% of the deck has been upgraded since Grand Prix Tampa, where it was the best deck).
Specifically, the addition of Aria of Flame gives the deck a new and unique angle of attack and allows it to function more like a combo deck than a beatdown deck. The card is also insane against Death’s Shadow, which was a difficult match up before, but causing them to gain 10 often kills their Shadow outright. Not bad.
Aria also improves the deck’s resilience:
- It doesn’t rely on the graveyard.
- It’s a threat that is immune to most removal and needs to be answered by a specific subset of cards.
- It adds another combo with Finale of Promise
Finale of Promise is a big game with Aria of Flame since casting it is always the equivalent of casting three spells. It takes 4 total spells to undo the 10 life Aria “gives” the opponent, and gets you most of the way there all by itself (not to mention Promise is always a 2-for-1 when it resolves).
The deck was already elite. It didn’t lose anything. It has gained several significant printings that improve and increase power, consistency, and flexibility. I’m in. Let’s do this.
The Core of the Aria Izzet Phoenix Deck
Datamines don’t lie. Sometimes they tell tricky truths, but they never, ever lie…
Here’s what the “stock” Izzet Phoenix list currently looks like (I generated this list from information I found on MTGTop8 and MTGGoldfish, which are both fantastic resources for exploring the metagame).
1 Fiery Islet 1 Flooded Strand 3 Island (335) 1 Mountain (343) 1 Polluted Delta 4 Spirebluff Canal 3 Steam Vents 4 Scalding Tarn 4 Arclight Phoenix 4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror 3 Aria of Flame 1 Flame Slash 4 Faithless Looting 2 Finale of Promise 1 Lava Dart 4 Lightning Bolt 1 Magmatic Sinkhole 4 Manamorphose 4 Serum Visions 2 Sleight of Hand 4 Thought Scour 2 Surgical Extraction 2 Opt Sideboard 2 Abrade 2 Anger of the Gods 1 Force of Negation 2 Blood Moon 2 Spell Pierce 3 Ravenous Trap 1 Narset, Parter of Veils 1 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer 1 Seasoned Pyromancer
The stock list is surprisingly tuned for the current metagame. If we play the averages, I think the deck ends up having well-rounded plans, but there are some “flex slots” we can toy with.
I believe the flex slots in Aria Phoenix are limited: 2 Lands, 4 main deck spells, and five sideboard cards. The heavy lifting has been done by MTGO and tournament players already. 85% of the card choices are consistent among decks.
I’ll admit “just play this list and don’t question it too much” isn’t particularly fun, interesting, or creative. Welcome to the world of Tier 1 Modern decks. Once we start deviating beyond that 85% core, it starts to turn into a different deck: Storm, Mono-Red Phoenix, etc. Staying within that 85% range allows us to ‘hit the sweet spot’ of what makes the strategy so good: consistency, power, and speed.
Main Deck Flex Spots
The main deck is rock solid. 18 Lands, 8 Creatures, and 34 Spells.
Let’s start with the lands because it’s an area where I deviate from the hive mind. Most of the tension revolves around a new printing:
It’s obviously a great card and good enough to play, but while having upside in the late game, it tends to deal a lot of damage to my face, which is a big liability in a race.
I want to preserve my life total a little bit more, and another fetch puts a card into the graveyard to delve away, and it finds basic Island in Blood Moon matchups (I play Blood Moon).
It’s a great example of a flex slot because there’s no clear right or wrong and we must make a choice between two similar cards. Right now, there’s more than enough fast aggro that I think it makes sense to protect my life total and it’s less likely to arrive at a game state where I’m going to cycle. However, if the metagame changes to a point where there is a ton of U/W Control the swap increases in value and I’d be more likely to follow suit.
On the other hand, some lists play up to 2 Fiery Islets! How much life are you willing to trade for the option to draw a card later? I’m playing the same mana base I played back in Tampa. It felt fantastic then, and the deck has gotten more red since with the addition of Finale of Promise.
Another area where I see deviation is the “Aria Package.” The trend is to play 3/2 split on Aria and Finale. The package is another busted combo jammed into the deck.
The package basically replaces Snapcaster Mage and Crackling Drake. I’ve seen some lists that shave the third Aria of Flame for a Crackling Drake. I like diversifying threats, but I’ve found the package is a strength of the deck and not something I want to dilute.
It’s worth noting Aria can deal damage to planeswalkers, which makes it a formidable tool against Narset and Liliana, which can both be problematic on certain boards.
The other flex slot in the main deck is Flame Slash. Approximately 50% play Flame Slash and the other half replace it with a different piece of interaction. It’s the most consistently played option in the spot and the second is Gut Shot.
Again, all provide slightly different upside and liability depending upon the matchup:
- Sinkhole is better against Walkers and Smasher.
- Axe provides another discard outlet for a fast Phoenix.
- Dart and Gut Shot are better against Hierarch decks.
- Surgical against graveyard decks.
- Force of Negation shines against non-creature strategies.
I personally play Flame Slash, because it is a one-mana sorcery removal spell, which opens up the gate for my Finale for X=1 to be two removal spells when teamed up with a Bolt.
There are also some lists that don’t play Extraction in the main and instead opt for more removal. I’m currently on 2 Extraction but leaning toward trying to find room for a third. I find the card to be extremely important against a lot of match ups and a great way to bring back Phoenix a turn faster in a pinch.
The core sideboard cards played in successful lists are extremely consistent, which is good to know if you are playing against Phoenix!
These 8 unique cards account for 11.9 sideboard slots of wining Izzet Phoenix decklists. That’s 80% overlap.
We see a significant drop off once we extend beyond the Power 8 sideboard cards:
0.2 Copies per Sideboard
0.1 Copies (half as likely to be played as previous column).
A few decks played the full four Leyline of the Void, bringing up the average to .5 even though most skimped on it. It’s an option, but not the most common one by a longshot.
There is also an observable trend regarding how much of the sideboard is used for what purpose. Almost all winning lists meet a bare minimum of the following types of effects:
- 2x Nonbasic Hate (Blood Moon / Alpine Moon)
- 2x Sticky Threats (Narset / Saheeli / Jace, The Mind Sculptor / Seasoned Pyromancer / Chandra, Torch of Defiance)
- 3x Counterspells for Spells (Spell Pierce / Force of Negation)
- 3x Graveyard Hate (Ravenous Trap / Leyline of the Void / Surgical Extraction)
- 2x Anti Artifact (Ceremonious Rejection / Echoing Truth / Shatterstorm / Abrade / Shenanigans)
- 3x Creature Removal (Anger of the Gods, Abrade, Grim Lavamancer, Flame Slash, Magmatic Sinkhole, Fry).
Unsurprisingly, the numbers add up to 15. Abrade covers two bases (artifact and creatures) which essentially opens two more sideboard slots to hedge with. These two spots are most commonly used to add an extra piece of removal for creature decks (3.5 copies) or an extra threat (2.5 copies). The most common split is a fourth removal spell and a third threat.
With all that in mind, here’s my current list:
4 Scalding Tarn 1 Polluted Delta 1 Misty Rainforest 1 Flooded Strand 4 Spirebluff Canal 3 Island (335) 2 Mountain (343) 2 Steam Vents 4 Arclight Phoenix 4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror 4 Serum Visions 4 Thought Scour 2 Sleight of Hand 4 Faithless Looting 1 Flame Slash 2 Finale of Promise 1 Magmatic Sinkhole 2 Surgical Extraction 1 Lava Dart 4 Lightning Bolt 2 Opt 4 Manamorphose 3 Aria of Flame Sideboard 2 Abrade 2 Anger of the Gods 1 Force of Negation 3 Spell Pierce 2 Ravenous Trap 1 Surgical Extraction 1 Blood Moon 1 Alpine Moon 1 Narset, Parter of Veils 1 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
My mana is 2 cards from the stock average. My main deck spells are exactly the stock averages. My sideboard is 5 cards off the stock list.
All the data for successful Phoenix decks informs us that some iteration close to the stock list is a great build of the deck. There’s so much information available if you’re willing to crunch the numbers that it paints a fairly accurate portrait of what the deck should look like.
The crazy thing about Magic and Modern is that nothing is static. While these lists are clearly the ones overperforming the field, there is always time for the field to adjust. If people start playing more Spell Pierces, Narsets, and enchantment removal, the overall value of the stock build may be diminished. In which case, reverting to Crackling Drake and Snapcaster Mage could potentially be an option on the horizon. No matter what the case, it’s clear that Izzet Phoenix is on the rise and one of the decks to beat in Modern.