Top 4 in Tampa with Izzet Phoenix

“Hope rises like a phoenix,

From the ashes of shattered dreams.”

S.A. Sachs

There’s a reason the phoenix is a touchstone metaphor for everything from love, to life, to personal growth—there’s something timeless, compelling, and beautiful about the notion that through learning from our hardships, we can become a better, stronger version of ourselves.

Magic: the Gathering has been a lifelong passion. Some golf. Some fish. Some cook. I’m a gamer, through and through, and MTG is one of the greatest games ever conceived. After decades, it still finds new ways to amaze and captivate my imagination.

While the metaphoric value of Arclight Phoenix is great, it was a non-factor in my decision to play the deck. My decision was more based on the fact that a free, cantripping, recursive, hasty, flying 3/2 is just too good not to play when given the option.

Paths To and From Exile

About a year ago, I made the difficult and conscious choice to stop grinding the pro circuit. It felt like I had spent several years lining up good and bad finishes in the perfect sequence to miss out on reaching my goals, and those misses took their toll. The more I approached tournaments from a results oriented mindset, the more they became a source of stress and anxiety, and the less I found myself enjoying the game.

In hindsight, I realize I did it to myself. I never questioned why I was on the path I was, and just kept blindly hacking away at the darkness. At a certain point, I realized I simply wasn’t enjoying the thing I loved to do, and it was clear I needed a change.

It’s a precarious position for an MTG content creator to simply step away from professional events, and “go casual” or “play for fun” again. I fully expected I’d be let go from the content position I’d worked so hard to earn over the years and really enjoy doing as a consequence of my choice, but I decided to try something new and write articles for an audience I wasn’t even sure even existed. Instead of focusing on writing as a grinder for grinders, I did the exact opposite and wrote about the elements of Magic that I personally found interesting: deck building, theory, casual formats (Pauper and Battle Box), fluff (history and flavor), and wrote articles that focused on appealing to a wider audience than just tournament players.

I have great appreciation to CFB for keeping me around, and the past year has been one of the most fun, memorable, and productive of my entire Magic career despite “taking a break.”

A couple of months ago, I published an article where I laid out my thoughts on this new approach to how and why I play Magic.

And now here I am, qualified for the Pro Tour and enjoying Magic: The Gathering in a way I haven’t in years!

Like the Legend of the Phoenix/An End is a Beginning…

I attended MagicFest Tampa largely by coincidence. My wife and I had planned to visit her parents outside of the city, and there just so happened to be a MagicFest going on while we were in town. My wife was cool with me playing the event, so that became the plan.

Magic has become a game that rewards specialization. If you don’t know exactly what’s up in a format, it’s difficult to play at a high level. This is because a big part of playing at an above-the-curve level involves knowing and anticipating the cards your opponent is likely to play and being a step ahead.

I’ve mostly focused on playing and streaming Limited on Arena. I figure Limited and Eternal have always been my strongest suits, and since I can’t jam Vintage or Legacy on MTG Arena, I might as well work on my short (Limited) game.

In my Force of Will article from last week, I was pretty straightforward about the fact that while I like Modern, it is probably my least favorite format to play right now. It’s a preference, but it has affected the amount of Modern I’ve been playing over the past few months.

Zach Allen loaned me his Izzet Phoenix deck to play at Tuesday Night Modern a few months ago, and I failed miserably with it. I didn’t particularly enjoy playing the deck, which is likely somehow related to the fact that I went 0-4 with it. I didn’t play another game of Modern until after #MTGCleveland.

After Cleveland, I knew going into my Modern preparation that the format was nuanced, and that the people who were good at it put a ton of time into learning and honing their understanding of that nuance. I was not going to beat these folks by going deeper into the format than they were!

I was realistic about my knowledge of the format, which was general and largely based on assumptions rooted in playing many past versions of the format. I know what the archetypes are and what they do, but I certainly didn’t know every current build and sideboard plan.

With that in mind, I picked up the most straightforward deck I could think of, Boros Burn, and went to battle at my LGS. First, the level of competition at my LGS on an average Tuesday night is high, with knowledgeable players whose opinions and insights I value and respect. I went to the event, asked questions, and tried to jam as much education as I could into each of those four-hour sessions.

One thing I quickly learned was that the #BurnLife wasn’t glamorous. Also, none of the local ringers had much respect for the archetype. The next week, I tried Mono-Red Phoenix and started to wrap my head around all of the Phoenix hype.

I was just starting to put the puzzle together around the time Kyle Boggemes told me: “Izzet Phoenix is a broken deck. It’s one of the most broken decks compared to the rest of the options I’ve ever seen in Modern. You should just play that.”

As far as most Magic players go, Kyle is succinct and direct when it comes to vocalizing opinions. He doesn’t speak in hyperbole or claim things are insanely broken often.

“I tried playing it a few months ago and it seemed to complicated to learn in a week,” was my response.

“You’ve played broken blue decks before, right…?  It’s great, right….?”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

So, two days before the event I decided to go “all-in” on Kyle’s advice. I watched a few videos, I read the articles, and I reviewed Dylan Donegan’s sideboard guide on Twitter. The first actual game I played with the deck (aside from my 0-4 stinkfest two months ago) was round 3 of the event after the byes! Let’s just say, my expectations for Tampa were very, very low.

The Pre-Tournament Circus

Kyle already had a nice list to start from and he and I theorycrafted flex slot choices as I packed for Tampa. Basically, any card that we considered I threw in my luggage. Unfortunately, the Ann Arbor players came up with some really nice tech after I left that I wasn’t able to pack.

Set Adrift

After I arrived in Tampa, Kyle advised playing a copy of Set Adrift in the main deck as a flexible answer card. The problem, of course, was that I didn’t have a Set Adrift, nor did I know whether any copies would be available on site!

So, despite having two byes for the event, I hit the road at 6 AM on the hour long trek to the convention center in search of Set Adrift.

There was nary a Set Adrift to be seen. There was a funny moment on Day 2 where I was seated next to Jarvis Yu and overheard him talking about also scrambling to find the card at the last minute. He was lucky enough to borrow a copy from a prepared friend. I was not so lucky (at least at finding copies of Set Adrift). So, note to dealers: bring Set Adrifts to Modern events!

I was frantically running around from dealer to dealer in search of that stupid card and digging through 3-for-a-dollar boxes, and seriously contemplating cracking packs of Khans. I probably would have gone the pack route, except that the pairings for the player meeting went up. I was out of time and still didn’t have a deck list filled out. Uh-oh.

I frantically scribbled out a list while bouncing cards around to account for the Set Adrift I didn’t have with a Judge over my shoulder saying, “Let’s go. Time’s up…”

Here’s what I scribbled down as hastily as an Arclight Phoenix in flight:

Izzet Phoenix

Brian DeMars, 3rd place at MagicFest Tampa

4 Scalding Tarn
1 Flooded Strand
1 Polluted Delta
3 Steam Vents
4 Spirebluff Canal
3 Island
2 Mountain
2 Crackling Drake
4 Arclight Phoenix
4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror
2 Snapcaster Mage
4 Thought Scour
4 Serum Visions
4 Faithless Looting
3 Surgical Extraction
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Flame Slash
1 Lightning Axe
4 Manamorphose
1 Beacon Bolt

Sideboard
1 Ravenous Trap
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
2 Shattering Spree
1 Threads of Disloyalty
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Dispel
2 Spell Pierce
1 Negate
2 Blood Moon
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Abrade

In the Top 8, the players are allowed to review each other’s deck lists. Everyone else’s was submitted electronically and thus typed up and printed out. Mine, on the other hand, looked like like a Jackson Pollock painting. Somehow, by the grace of Serra, I was able to get 60 and 15.

I audibled decks without getting a chance to play and then I couldn’t find a card. On top of that, I was legitimately worried I’d submitted an incorrect deck list. Things were off to a dynamite start.

A Winning Mindset

After the chaos and frantic activity I went out to breakfast with my wife and she said, “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”

I responded: “I’d be surprised if I won a single game at this point, but my goal for the event is to have as much fun as possible and enjoy the afternoon regardless of wins or losses.”

“That’s why I think you’re going to do well.”

We parted ways and she went to the aquarium.  I headed back inside and bought some sweet Old School cards for my Battle Box. $25 bucks was a pretty savage deal for these two iconic cards. One blue… one red… Izzet a good omen?

As far as I was concerned, at that point, it was already a productive weekend.

Match History

I played a challenging cast of opponents over the course of the next two days. I must say, the Tampa guys I battled were excellent players and human beings. I ended up adding most of my opponents as friends on FB and Twitter.

I knew after round 5 when I defeated Corey Baumeister in the mirror match that I had a shot at a special tournament, but I continued to focus on having fun and playing good Magic. I stole game 1 with the most broken draw I had in the entire tournament:

Not only was I drawing well, but I felt like I was playing pretty excellent Magic as well.

Kyle was spot on. “You’ve played a broken blue deck before, right?”

Even though I wasn’t super experienced with playing this specific deck, I quickly started to get the hang of it. It kind of reminded me of playing Control Slaver in Vintage, which is a weird analogy, but like that deck, when I would push it to do powerful things, it responded with a high degree of consistency.

I could sort of plot out the point in the game where I wanted to try to have a big turn or make a move, and the deck would consistently deliver the goods. It was like a driving a well-tuned race car. When I’d hit the gas, it went fast.

My format inexperience did cost me a few times along the way. I was clearly outplayed by Ryan Desutter on Dredge (who also put up a fantastic finish, 12-3, and kept my breakers high) in three of the most epic and tightly contested games I’ve played in months.

That specific match left an impression on me about the format. Aside from a matchup where somebody played a sideboard “checkmate” card, I don’t think there are other decks in the format capable of producing so many broken plays over the course of four or five consecutive turns as Dredge and Phoenix. Game 3 came down to Ryan needing to natural Shriekhorn into a Creeping Chill with my lethal Lightning Bolt on the stack!

I rounded out Day 1 with a W to finish up in 8th place in the event after nine rounds.

I was beyond thrilled.

My goal for Day 2 was to stay in the mix as long as I possible, to enjoy the ride, and play my best.

Day 2 started with a challenging opponent: Stephen Mann. I’ve teamed with S-Mann for Pro Tours before and have an immense respect for him as a player. I had chatted with him and Chris Fennel the day before and so we both knew we were playing the mirror, and were both in similar situations: learning to play the broken best deck on the fly. A draw felt like a satisfying and fitting conclusion to such an evenly matched contest.

S-Mann also made an interesting comment about a potential Modern Horizons card that I thought was really smart:

Containment Priest

After thinking about it a little bit, I feel like this would be a great card for Modern.

I barely survived the next two rounds. In my match against David Maddox, on Abzan Company, it all came down to topdecks. He whiffed and then I hit. My match against Lee Sthet, on a sweet Serum Visions/Eldrazi hate variant that I’d never seen or played against before, also came down to the wire.

Suddenly, I was very “in the mix” at 10-1-1.

I had been running hot the previous two rounds, but Jesse Calabrese (who also made Top 8) absolutely pulverized me. Turn-1 Relic, turn-3 Karn, turn-4 Ulamog… get rekt. The match was over in about ten minutes.

A setback, but I suspected I was still live for Top 8 because the attendance for the event was only around 1,000 players.

Round 14 was by far the most challenging of the tournament and I ended up having the most on the line. I was up against a clearly skilled Death’s Shadow opponent who knew the matchup much better than I did (a theme that would continue…). Game 1 looked good, but slowly slipped away. In games 2 and 3, there were points where I thought the games were lost, but I made the plays I could, and somehow drew out and squeaked out victories by the narrowest of margins.

In game 3 I had a series of three decisions over the course of three turns where if I had made any single one differently I would have instantly lost the match:

  1. Scry the second Blood Moon to the top or bottom on turn 2 when my opponent already has a basic Island in play.
  2. Fetch a basic Island or Steam Vents on turn 3 to cast the first Blood Moon into Stubborn Denial mana with mostly 1-mana red cards in hand.
  3. Go for double-Bolt on Gurmag Angler into Stubborn Denial mana or dig for more options?

Somehow I managed to come away with a win.

At this point, I knew I was live for Top 8 with a round 15 win. The excitement started to build up…

Then I got paired down against Trey Caporale and he scooped me in. Tables 1-4 all intentionally drew, which left me as a virtual lock for Top 8 with a win and him unable to make it regardless of the outcome. So, much thanks to Trey for hooking me up in that spot. I hope I have the chance to return the favor someday.

Anti-climactic? Yes. But I’ll take it any time, every time.

I didn’t get the rush of having to play a win-and-in (overrated compared to getting scooped in) but something that happened next was the highlight of my trip. The judges advised the players who thought they were likely to make Top 8 to gather in a specific area. There was a huge congregation of people standing around and I overheared two pro players whose game I have immense respect for make the following statement, discussing potential Top 8 matchups: “based on breakers it looks like you’re most likely to face either DeMars or Sam Black, so either way one of the stronger players.”

It really made my weekend to hear something like that, especially since I haven’t been competing much and have spent a lot of my time with Magic focusing on content that is geared toward helping newer players get into the theory side of the game. In all honesty, hearing players I respect say something like that about me was more thrilling than hearing my name called.

The Top 8

The Top 8 was exciting. Top 8s always are. I was mostly hoping not to play against Sam Black, because I had no idea how to play against his deck, which has been a theme in my lifetime matches against him over the years.

I was 4-0-1 in Izzet Phoenix mirrors over the weekend. It was basically my bread and butter for earning points, and with four copies in the Top 8 I was hoping for a mirror. Modern is such a huge format and I knew the skill set where I was most disadvantaged was “format knowledge.”

But I had done a lot of work tuning and thinking about Izzet Phoenix lists, and had a played a bunch of mirror matches. I felt that was the best-case scenario for me.

I played my final Izzet mirror in the Top 8 against Shaheen Soorani. Shaheen is a master, but so were all three of the other Izzet Phoenix pilots, so even given the best possible outcome I was still likely not favored to win.

The Top 8 match was a blast. I don’t know Soorani personally, outside of playing against him a few times over the years, but after our match he is a player I will actively root for when watching coverage from now on. He’s genuinely nice and fun to play against, with a real enthusiasm for playing the game. We joked around a fair amount, which made the experience a chill one. When we got a chance to look over each other’s deck lists, he was quick to point out that we both had Jace, the Mind Sculptor and how much better he thought it was than Chandra.

A pro who is genuinely fun to play cards with and who also cannot understand why a person would want to play a Chandra when they could play a Jace? I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter…

Game 1 went back in forth over the first two turns. I took a mulligan. He didn’t have a Thing in the Ice on turn 2, and so I was happy to get mine on the board first and seize tempo. On his turn 3, he burned out my Thing and on my following upkeep fired off Surgical Extraction on the Thing, which also caught the second copy from my hand.

I was basically left with a Manamorphose and a couple of cantrips. I put the pedal to the medal, and my deck responded with the goods and an flock of angry birds migrated into the red zone onward to victory.

In between games 2 and 3 Soorani commented, “Knowing we both have Jace, I’m curious how many Lightning Bolts we are supposed to each leave in.” I decided to leave no Bolts in, which was the default plan I’d discussed earlier with Andrew Elenbogen. It was unclear to me whether he was asking an earnest question or trying to get me to leave in bad cards, and so I decided to ride out on the horse that brought me there.

I boarded:

Out

 

Lightning BoltLightning BoltLightning BoltLightning Bolt

In

 

Spell PierceSpell PierceThreads of DisloyaltyJace, the Mind Sculptor

It turns out, he was not in fact gaming me, and chose to leave in two Lightning Bolts of his own out of respect to Jace.

In game 2, I mulliganed and kept a zero-land hand on the draw that was basically the nuts:

Faithless LootingSerum VisionsSurgical Extraction - Buy-a-Box PromoManamorphoseArclight PhoenixArclight Phoenix

I happily scryed a land to the top, but Soorani made a heads-up play to Thought Scour me on the play… uh-oh. Aside from being bad for me for obvious reasons—I was now at the mercy peeling another land—it also likely meant he had a Surgical in his hand to have taken that line.

I managed to topdeck a land and tried to sculpt a hand capable of assembling my Phoenix through an Extraction. He didn’t have pressure but continue to work on his hand as well. I managed to get a couple of lands on the board before the showdown came. He waited until after I drew to fire off Surgical Extraction and I responded by firing off a Manamorphose, and another, and another… The final one went for UU as I desperately dug for a second copy of Spell Pierce to counter a second potential Extraction.

I didn’t find it, and Soorani did, in fact, have a second Surgical to Extract my flock. The next turn he slammed Jace and that was more than enough to send us into game 3. Out of gas and Boltless, I was checkmated.

In game 3, he played a cantrip and a Faithless Looting, and didn’t find a second land. I had a great draw (every draw is great when your opponent doesn’t have mana) and was able to spam multiple Thing in the Ice while he was unable to make plays, which left him without any real way to come back.

I ended up losing in the Top 4 to the eventual champion of the tournament, Roshen Eapen, (@RasheenDaDream). To borrow a cliché from sports, “I tip my hat to him—the better player won.”

I barely defeated Death’s Shadow to make it into the Top 8 and did not have a strong understanding of how the matchup worked. Rosheen had the choice of “play or draw,” and when he said, “I’ll take the draw,” I knew I was in for a world of pain. He clearly knew the matchup inside and out on a level where I was straight-up outmatched, and the outcome directly reflected that dynamic.

He was a very pleasant opponent and a deserving champion.

After the event, my wife and I returned to her parents’ place and we had a delicious celebratory dinner. Best vacation ever!

Final Thoughts

I rode the luck of the Irish as far as it would take me and had an absolute blast in Tampa. The result far exceeded my wildest dream and I’m excited to again have a shot at playing on the Pro Tour, err, Mythic Championship.

For me, taking a step back from competitive Magic and regaining perspective about what I love and treasure about this game has made all the difference. It has allowed me to grow as a player and a person. It’s made me a better rounded Magic player in basically every sense of the phrase.

I’ll openly admit that I didn’t go deep into testing Modern for the event, but the testing I did was extremely effective.

  1. I played enough games to understand which decks I didn’t want to play, and why I didn’t want to play them.
  2. I listened to sage advice from Modern specialists who knew what they were talking about and took it to heart. I wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel. Rather, I wanted to a focused version of the “best deck.”
  3. I sought out and consumed the best content specific to what I wanted to play.
  4. I showed up to the tournament with the mindset that I was going to try my best and the most important thing was to have fun.

All of which isn’t to say that I haven’t been playing a lot of Magic lately! Overall, I play more Magic now than I ever did when I was grinding for Pro Points. The key difference is that now I play what I like, when I like, and how I like. I play for me and not for results, something I haven’t done in years.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with “grinding” as long as you love what you’re doing. It’s not really grinding if you’re passionate and love the experience. Some of the best years of my life were hitting the road with my pals and jamming tournaments trying to qualify for the PT. I guess the lesson I’m trying to share is that if you’re not enjoying the path you’re on, that there’s always another road that will take you where you need to go.

Thanks to everyone for the love, support, and kind words this weekend. It meant the world to me. #MTGTampa was easily one of the best Magic experiences of my life.

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