I haven’t had much reason to play Modern the past few months. I didn’t go to any Modern GPs, and it’s been a while since the last Modern Pro Tour. I played Modern at PT 25th Anniversary and have kind of skated on my knowledge of the format since then.
I noticed that Arclight Phoenix was becoming increasingly popular in Modern. I watched Ari Lax play a League on Magic Online with an early iteration—and I was not impressed. I assumed it was only a matter of time before we stopped seeing people playing them just like all the Bridgevine decks that eventually disappeared.
Then, watching coverage this week, I saw that two different Arclight Phoenix decks faced off in the finals of the Baltimore Open. I was surprised to say the least, and after saying all these decks looked like bad Hollow One decks on the Pro Points Podcast last week, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I took a few different versions of Arclight Phoenix for a spin in the last couple of days. Let’s start with Ross Merriam’s tournament-winning deck, Izzet Phoenix:
Again, I went into this thinking the setup behind Arclight Phoenix was similar to Hollow One. You play some spells that allow you to cheat creatures into play, use the resiliency of those creatures to grind out long games, and the deck’s explosiveness to try and out goldfish other goldfish decks. Hollow One decks are one part graveyard synergy and one part non-graveyard cards so that you can beat a Rest in Peace sometimes. These Phoenix decks felt similar to that. While they used the graveyard a good amount you’d still be fairly weak to a card like Rest in Peace.
This thought process, especially for the Izzet version of the deck, was wrong. Ross’s deck uses the graveyard very little. In fact, this Phoenix deck plays much more like a Delver of Secrets deck than a Hollow One deck. Arclight Phoenix is the only card seriously crippled by graveyard hate, and even then you can just cast them or Faithless Looting them away and win with your other threats.
I’ve always kind of disliked Thing in the Ice. It’s a lot of setup, it’s not always good, and it’s generally pretty clunky. Thing in the Ice is excellent in this deck, though. It acts almost like a Tarmogoyf with a ton of upside. In most decks, you spend time and mana setting up a Thing in the Ice, spinning your wheels with cantrips only to have it meet a Fatal Push or Dismember, and all the mana you’ve invested simply goes to waste. With Arclight Phoenix, that’s just not the case. You can now work toward flipping Thing in the Ice while in the process also returning Arclight Phoenixes so your mana is doing double time. Thing in the Ice reliably flips in this deck, and the inclusion of Gut Shot makes it so much more mana efficient to do so.
Crackling Drake was impressive. It utilizes your graveyard, but doesn’t get punished when your graveyard gets exiled. So all of the time and mana you spend casting cantrips again doesn’t go to waste if your Thing in the Ice gets removed or the Arclight Phoenix threat is neutralized. Thing in the Ice does a good job at eating removal to let the first or second Crackling Drake close the game out. Drake at 4 mana is expensive, so maybe you could trim the number down to two. That said, a lot of the games I won with Crackling Drake I won with the second, not the first. Drake’s resiliency to Lightning Bolt makes it playable, and its ability to fight through graveyard hate like nothing happened makes it actively good.
Monastery Swiftspear often attacks for 3 and 4 damage in this deck. Two seemed like a weird number to me, and I think that number could increase at the cost of perhaps a Crackling Drake, as three 4-mana cards is a bit much, especially since you usually end up finding them with one of your many cantrips. Swiftspear is effective against decks you want to put a fast clock on, but this deck isn’t the best at closing out early, so I understand why the number is so small. It’s a way to shorten the clock, but you don’t want your game plan to revolve around them too much.
All in all, this Izzet Phoenix deck was much better than I anticipated. It was consistent and resilient. It was much worse at closing games quickly than Hollow One, but it also played much better against graveyard hate. In fact, graveyard hate was a minor problem at worst. Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake do an excellent job of closing out games, and the deck has so many cantrips that I found it easy to find as many Lightning Bolts as I needed to end the long games. Decks like Tron, Scapeshift, and KCI seemed like they’d be pretty tough for this deck, whereas those matchups are good to fine for Hollow One, so the matchup chart doesn’t look the same. This deck is much different and played well against small creature decks and fair decks, but seems like it would struggle against true combo.
The next deck I wanted to try out was the 2nd-place deck in the Baltimore Open, and that’s a Mono-Red Arclight Phoenix deck played by Jeffrey Carr:
Mono-Red Arclight Phoenix
I only made one change to this deck, which was to swap a sideboard Dismember for a Lightning Axe.
This take on Arclight Phoenix is much different. It’s less resilient to graveyard hate, but also goldfishes faster, especially in its good draws.
Monastery Swiftspear was impressive in this deck and was definitely the best turn-1 play. In fact, it almost made me feel like a copy of Soul-Scar Mage or two could be added to this deck. Maybe Goblin Guide would be better if I were going to go that route.
The deck’s biggest flaw was a lack of productive early plays. With the Izzet version of Arclight Phoenix you could cast cantrips to find cards and set up for a big Phoenix turn. But with this version, if you cast stuff like Faithless Looting or Lava Spike on turn 1, you may run out of enough cheap spells to bring back the Phoenixes, and if you don’t, Bedlam Reveler won’t come out on time. This made the deck clunky at times.
Fiery Temper was less than impressive and often required a lot of setup without as much payoff as I would have like. I’m not sure if I can cut it because I want to overload on burn, but it certainly felt like one of the weaker cards in the deck.
Risk Factor, while a nice topdeck against grindy decks hanging on against you in the midgame, was pretty poor for me overall. I don’t quite understand its inclusion as it’s a liability against a lot of Modern decks, and only pretty good against others. It’s high variance, and definitely not a card I think I need two of in the deck.
Flame Jab was certainly neat. The deck has a low land count, a lot of ways to filter lands, and even ways to use lands with the Bedlam Revelers, but a single copy came in handy to return Arclight Phoenixes with lands in my hand. It even played a longer game with Jeskai by trading off lands for Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique. I didn’t even draw it in the matchups where it would be most impressive, and it felt like a single copy was totally fine.
Ramunap Ruins actually proved to be more of a liability than it was useful. I drew it regularly, never sacrificed it, and took a few damage from it. It was also an issue against Jeskai Control when they got to fix their mana with a Field of Ruin. It likely cost me that game, in fact. I’m not totally sure it shouldn’t be included and I’m leaning toward yes, but the cost isn’t negligible as this deck does use a lot of red mana and a few colorless. The Field of Ruin thing is just another potential downside, though not a huge one as it’s unlikely to come up often.
Between Bedlam Reveler, Arclight Phoenix, Fiery Temper, and Risk Factor I often had hands that weren’t functional, which required me to mulligan or developed poorly. I did win a good amount with the deck despite all of that, but I definitely got lucky once or twice and had an opponent make a mistake or two. But that’s the benefit of playing newer Modern decks as well. Players tend to not have enough reps against them, which can give you an edge early in a deck’s existence.
While Gut Shot wasn’t as good in this deck as it was in the Izzet version, having a free spell to trigger Phoenix or make Bedlam Reveler cheaper was still great. While I wouldn’t want to draw two of them very often, the first one was usually pretty good regardless of the matchup.
The best part of this deck was its ability to play a long game with Bedlam Revelers and card filtering in Tormenting Voice and Faithless Looting. Later in the game you could usually find action and set up Phoenixes to return. This played like a more resilient Burn deck. Overall, Tormenting Voice is probably a necessary evil, but it’s clunky. It’s much worse than Chart a Course was in the Izzet Phoenix deck.
The sideboard was better than I anticipated. Playing against Storm and KCI with these decks felt like they might be a nightmare, but between Eidolon of the Great Revel and Tormod’s Crypt you actually had a lot of ways to keep your opponent from combo’ing off while applying pressure.
This deck does suffer more against graveyard hate than the Izzet version, but not by an incredible amount. You can usually side out some Bedlam Revelers and hard cast Arclight Phoenix in a pinch. The deck can also just use its burn to close if a single creature sticks. All in all I think this deck has potential but needs to be tuned a little more before it reaches its final form.
Lastly, I tried the following Hollow One Arclight Phoenix deck:
Hollow One Arclight Phoenix
Rolling back around to my comparison to Hollow One, this one actually is an Arclight Phoenix Hollow One deck. I changed a couple of cards from this deck I found on MTGGoldfish and went to battle.
This deck did indeed play out much like the original B/R Hollow One deck. The deck had explosive draws with Flameblade Adept and Hollow One early, and had staying power with Arclight Phoenix to recur and Bedlam Reveler to draw additional cards.
But it felt worse than normal Hollow One to me for a couple of reasons. Arclight Phoenix was more difficult to bring back than I’d like. With all of the random discard it wasn’t easy to set up a a turn to bring back Phoenixes even if I got to discard them. It just kind of happened sometimes. While Bedlam Reveler gives the deck staying power, it’s much less consistent and slower than Gurmag Angler. It’s not easy to cast a turn-2 Bedlam Reveler and it’s pretty easy to cast a turn-2 Gurmag Angler. It was also worse at putting Hollow One into play. Without Street Wraith, Faithless Looting isn’t as effective an enabler. With this mono-red version without fetches and Stomping Grounds for Ancient Grudges, I’m wondering if it’s worth playing Street Wraith here over some of the filler like Maximize Velocity. You do want to keep your spell count high for Arclight Phoenix, but Street Wraith ends up being some percentage of a spell anyway since it cycles for 0 mana.
I tried porting over the Flame Jab from the previous Mono-Red Phoenix build but never drew it. In theory it could help with a castable spell when you get left with excess lands after a Goblin Lore or Burning Inquiry. It may even help you cast a Hollow One at times.
The Arclight Phoenix payoff seemed worse than Flamewake Phoenix and Bloodghast, and as I said this deck was worse at putting Hollow One into play because of its lack of Street Wraith. This is not a deck I’d recommend in its current form, as it’s got most of the same downsides as B/R Hollow One, but it’s not as powerful and efficient.
So going into this I thought all of these Phoenix decks were kind of a meme. People love playing with new cards and I thought the popularity was largely due to that. In retrospect, I think these decks are definitely competitive, but still need work. Ross’s Izzet Phoenix deck is the closest to finely tuned and I would feel comfortable playing it in an event this week. The red version played by Jeffrey Carr is a little rougher around the edges but felt like it could maybe be the better deck in the long run as it can kill faster, giving it some chance in matchups where players are trying to goldfish each other. I think it needs to be made a little smoother by replacing some of the higher mana cost cards like Risk Factor for some solid cards to cast on turn 1. Maybe a copy of Soul-Scar Mage or two would work. As for the Hollow One Arclight Phoenix deck, I’d stick to just playing normal B/R Hollow One if you like that version. It’s smoother, faster, and utilizes the random discard better.
These Phoenix decks are all pretty good against Lightning Bolt, which seems to be pretty popular in Modern right now. None of the creatures trade down on mana for it, except the Phoenix itself, which comes back and is usually free. If the Izzet Phoenix decks become more popular I wonder if we’ll see an increase in popularity in Fatal Push to take out Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drakes.
While these decks failed my eyeball test, I’d say that I was definitely wrongly judging the book by its cover. Wasn’t the first time—won’t be the last.