Initially the card was a format all-star in the form of Izzet Phoenix in Modern. The deck’s fast clock and flexible interaction made for a lethal combo, utilizing cards like Thing in the Ice and the since banned Faithless Looting. Even making a brief showing in Standard and Legacy. Upon the inception of Pioneer the deck was almost immediately imported. With the slightly lower power level of the format, slower cards like Strategic Planning and Chart a Course offered a similar experience to it’s Modern counterpart. With the addition of cards like Treasure Cruise to fix Phoenix’s card advantage issues, it started putting up results.
However fast forward a couple of months, the meta has developed a little more and Phoenix has all but disappeared from high level competitive Magic in Pioneer. I’m going to attempt to provide some insight into why that might have happened.
Phoenix is what you could class as a ‘Tempo’ deck. The kind of deck that wants to squeeze value out of it’s cards, presenting a clock and interacting with the opponent to maintain an advantage. Cards like Izzet Charm and Shock, while pretty low on power level, with the addition of Arclight Phoenix they become surprisingly effective. It’s possible to both answer opposing threats all while recurring your Phoenix to chip in for hasty and evasive damage. If built correctly these types of decks can deal with both aggro and control. Mono Blue Tempo, piloted by Autumn Burchett in the first Mythic Championship was a great example of this style of deck. Cards like Merfolk Trickster and Siren Stormtamer filled multiple roles, being a credible threat while protecting themselves or other creatures on the field.
In Pioneer, Phoenix thrives against decks like Mono-Red and Izzet Ensoul. Spells like Shock, Lava Axe and Izzet Charm are great at dealing with small threats, countering opposing Shrapnel Blasts, Ensoul Artifact etc. All the while flipping Thing in the Ice or generating a board of Elementals with Young Pyromancer. However as the format progressed it moved towards bigger mana decks and mid-range threats which proved challenging to deal with for the 1 to 2 CMC cards Phoenix utilizes. It’s pretty tough to kill a 6/6 with Shock.
Testing & Inverting
Testing for the season was a mixed bag. I’d had reasonable success against Mono-Red and Ensoul and even Mono-Black. However decks like Niv to Light, Bant Spirits and the dreaded Dimir Inverter of Truth was another story. After helping my close friend Scott Mines test for GP Brussels while he got to grips with Dimir Inverter, it became painfully obvious how weak Phoenix had become.
The deck just had no way to effectively interact with the main combo of Inverter. Thassa’s Oracle and Inverter are both creatures that Izzet Charm can’t counter and both creatures are either impossible to profitably kill, block or simply just don’t matter. Oracle’s job is done once it hits the board, same for Inverter to a degree. To make it worse Dimir Inverter employs a lot of hand disruption which Phoenix is incredibly weak to. Card advantage is everything in Phoenix and losing a key tool like Izzet Charm or Treasure Cruise can slow you down enough for Inverter to go off while you’re still spinning your wheels.
Another problematic match-up was Bant Sprits. My teammates Pagan Young and Louis Birtwistle had both decided to take the deck into the Pioneer season and during testing it was revealed that Spirits was likely just the better tempo deck. With cards like Spell Queller, Mausoleum Wanderer and Rattlechains, alongside Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle, Spirits could present a faster clock and interact with a larger number of threats. I consider the Spirits match-up a 70/30 ordeal in Spirit’s favor. Quelling an Izzet Charm left you down a card and them with a 2/3 on the board which quickly becomes a 3/4 which is already out of range of a Phoenix or a Shock.
Despite the poor testing I was confident in my experience on the deck and with the extensive practice I decided to try and leverage that over picking what I considered the ‘best deck’. Thankfully it paid off and I managed to win JustPlay’s WPNQ Finals Qualifier. Taking down Niv to Light, Mono-Red and Izzet Ensoul, drawing with my teammates Pagan and Louis in rounds 4 and 5. While the deck isn’t brilliant right now, as with many tempo decks it’s possible to leverage your skill to take games that might otherwise be very difficult to win. One of the reasons I was initially drawn to the deck was the vast decision trees that could change with each new card drawn. Unlike many poorly positioned decks, Phoenix can still be effective with a solid understanding of the meta and what you’re up against. I’d played the deck for months at this point and while many of the tools at my disposal weren’t great, it was still interaction which I could leverage.
However at the end of the event I actually left more convinced than ever that Phoenix wasn’t right the right deck for the meta. The decks I’d faced that day were ones I’d extensively tested against, specific scenarios I knew all too well came up repeatedly, Negating a potentially lethal Shrapnel Blast was the defining moment of the day, a situation I’d lost to a few months before.
After winning round 1 to a Niv opponent, stumbling on mana I faced an old friend, Liam Canning on Mono-Red. He took game one convincingly but post side-boarding I brought in 2x Abrade, 2x Anger of the Gods and 1x Magma Spray. I knew I’d be unable to take down Spirits, Inverter or Niv so I didn’t bother wasting sideboard slots on cards to improve those match-ups. I decided instead to hope for favorable games that I could reliably win with specific tools. Unfortunately Liam flooded out harder than I’ve ever seen anyone flood before in game 3 and I progressed into round 3.
My Ensoul opponent did the usual Gingerbrute and Stonecoil Serpent followed by Ensoul Artifact or Skilled Animator which I answered with Petty Theft. Post board it was fairly easy to one for one each threat while chipping away with Young Pyromancer and Arclight Phoenix.
Izzet Phoenix remains an enjoyable deck, with many lines to take and a lot of options it’s a flexible and unique option for Izzet inclined mages. However if you’re looking to take the tournament season seriously I cannot in good faith advise anyone to take this deck. Essentially folding to the top 3/4 of decks in the format isn’t a good look. I believe the deck could return in the right meta. With the right tools and the correct field the deck can decimate opponents but right now those tools just aren’t there.