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By: JXClaytor, Joshua Claytor
Aug 31 2022 11:12am
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Izzet Phoenix, based around Arclight Phoenix, is a tier 1 deck in Pioneer that’s popular because it has a resilient suite of threats and is, quite frankly, fun to play.

I normally write over at Draftsim, but today I’m here to guide you through my favorite deck in Pioneer.

Phoenix is still in some measure of flux after being weakened by the banning of Expressive Iteration in June as brewers try to adapt the deck and its card draw options. And a new card, the powerful Ledger Shredder that arrived with Streets of New Capenna, alters both the card draw component as well as the threats since it can be both.

Let’s look at an optimal current build of the deck and sort through how it might work, along with some options for adjustment as the meta shifts over the rest of the year. Let’s get to it!
 
The Deck

 
The Strategy

Creatures

Arclight Phoenix is the deck’s star, which wants to land in the graveyard and reanimate for an air raid.

The new supporting cast is Ledger Shredder, which draws cards and puts cards in the graveyard while growing into its own threat. It’s connive ability allows you to bin a Phoenix from your hand and means less efficient cards that can also do that. Chart a Course can be replaced by more graveyard-centric cards like Pieces of the Puzzle. Shredder has largely relegated Crackling Drake to sideboards, if at all.

Thing in the Ice, a former 4-of in the deck, has also been waylaid a bit by the Shredder. It also helps you shred through your deck so fast you can often find the Thing you need without drawing too many.

The mass bounce of the Awoken Horror backside can really seal the deal, especially because you can time it so that you trigger a Horror bounce and then cast the third cantrip to pull out the Phoenixes. It eats Fatal Push so you might be tempted to slow play this, but I’d rather have them Push this than my Shredders against faster decks.

Getting it down early forces opponents with lower power damage removal to figure out whether to cast two spells to kill it. That’s not as good for you as flipping the Thing, but it still slows them down and gets removal out of their hand.

Saving these in hand to drop and flip them on the same turn is a better call against slower decks where a Thing flip is your only answer, like against mono-green devotion.

Draw and Graveyard Spells


The core of the deck’s engine are 1-mana cantrips that draw cards, fill the graveyard, and can chain together to trigger a Phoenix rebirth.

The classic is Opt. But Consider is strictly better for this deck because it can drop a Phoenix in the ‘yard. Both can also be cast on your opponent’s end step to dig for answers but are at their best chaining together for Phoenix shenanigans.

Treasure Cruise, powerful enough to be banned in Modern, can mimic the Power 9’s Ancestral Recall. This isn’t a Dreadhorde Arcanist deck that recur spells, so delving them aside for more cards is always welcome.

Chart a Course is a necessary evil that some brewers preferred for another way to get a Phoenix from hand to the graveyard. Even when Expressive Iteration was legal.

Pieces of the Puzzle is the sort of card that should be replaced with a cheaper cantrip when you first start tinkering with the deck. Something like Crash Through or even the Faithless Looting option on Izzet Charm. But this reveals the deep truth about the deck, which isn’t always obvious when you first pick it up: Izzet Phoenix doesn’t need to go fast to win.

Don’t get me wrong. You’d love to get three Phoenixes out of the graveyard on turn 3. But you don’t have to, at least in the current meta. More on this in a bit.

This is why Pieces of the Puzzle has hit these decklists. There’s no better card to do it if you can still be building your engine on turn 3. At its best it can stock the ‘yard with Phoenixes and drop cantrips and removal into your hand while also helping fuel your Treasure Cruise.

At its worst, five cards is a lot and you can ditch lands or removal that don’t make sense in the matchup. You can also ditch all five cards to power a delve spell if needed.

And there’s one Sea Gate Restoration here. I’ve honestly never played this MDFC as anything but a land in this deck, but it’s there.

Interaction

Some builds of this deck use a few counterspells, but here you have some cheap removal that can help power your Phoenixes.

Fiery Impulse usually deals three at instant speed, and Lightning Axe can take care of bigger things while dropping off a Phoenix.

Shatterskull Smashing can save your bacon at times, but don’t overlook casting it for zero for the last gasp to get the Phoenix triggers working. And remember that Fiery Impulse can save your Phoenix from exile by killing it for you against The Wandering Emperor.

Extra Wincons

An extra turn can make all the difference with Phoenixes on board. Temporal Trespass can even win in the late game if your opponent is dinged up enough and you still have to cantrip them up next turn.

As with all delve decks, there’s some competition between your two delve spells and who gets to line up first at the graveyard. The basic rule of thumb is to only delve the Cruise if you have to when you have the Trespass in hand. If you haven’t seen Trespass or it’s already in the graveyard, Cruise.

Two turns is better than one turn for a deck as explosive as Izzet Phoenix, which Galvanic Iteration can net you. It also rocks at doubling Treasure Cruise, Pieces of the Puzzle, removal, and, well, everything!

But exactly when to use Iteration is tough. Even tougher is when it’s right to bin it given that its flashback cost only adds one mana.
Tips and Interactions

The basic strategy is to get your Phoenixes in the graveyard and then do what the card asks: cast three spells before combat to resurrect them into hasty attackers. But there are other levels to the strategy.

Managing Card Draw


You have enough card draw that the basic Phoenix gameplan usually happens naturally, but you could be stuck with too many lands or a handful of your expensive spells and no simple cantrips. Managing that is one of the more complicated parts of the deck.

A starting point is to keep moving to avoid being buried by your opponent. Don’t save spells for chaining if you literally only have one draw spell to cast. Just cast it. Your deck’s ability to win is more fragile that the rest of the top tiers in the meta, so you can’t wait if you’re stuck.

The Shredder Wincon

Ledger Shredder grows while you cast spells to fill the graveyard, and it can be a win condition on its own once it gets big enough. But it’s vulnerable to Fatal Push. In the early game, the Phoenix goal and the swole Shredder goal are the same with a Shredder out. Casting spells helps both equally.

But the Phoenix wants you to batch three spells together on your turn as the game progresses while the Shredder only needs two spells to activate. It also likes running at instant speed. The threat of conniving and growing toughness just enough to live by casting instants in response to toughness-focused removal like Reckless Rage or Bloodtithe Harvester or even just for combat can be useful in some matchups.

That doesn’t stop a Fateful Absence or other non-damage based removal, but it’s sometimes right to connive a Phoenix into the graveyard at instant speed before your turn even in those matchups. Especially if there’s a Graveyard Trespasser or the threat of casting one from the other side.

Calculate

The other decisions in the deck are made in the moment based on the board state and the matchup, but the key throughline is this: don’t be fast, be right.

This deck isn’t fast enough to beat the biggest deck in the meta, Rakdos midrange. They just have too many ways to knock your birds from the sky. Sometimes you can race the prowess and aggro decks because your removal fuels your engine, but they also have plenty of ways to Phoenix hunt.

Your goal in those matchups is to survive. Control. Stay alive. Get them to run out of removal, creatures, or cards before taking too many Play with Fires to the dome. They’ll run out of answers to your recurring Phoenixes eventually, you just need to be able to do the math well enough to just eke out the damage with extra turns or a flipped Thing or a swollen Shredder to get the win.

It sounds like a fragile plan, and it can be. But you can absolutely churn through your deck to get the best answers as long as you know what you need to win on the board you are facing. The exceptions to this are Azorius control and green ramp/devotion. You’re more resilient than you think to those decks, but the longer the game goes the better it is for them.

Mulligan Rules

    Cantrips are not lands.
    Don’t keep 1-landers with two copies of Opt.
    More than two or three spells that cost three or more is usually bad.
    Ideal draw is two or three lands, two or three cantrips, a piece of removal, and maybe a Pieces of the Puzzle or a Shredder.

Sideboard Guide

This assumes minimal changes to your deck, usually. The more you shift to answers or counterspells, the harder it is to get your wincon enabled.

But Opt and Chart a Course are your weakest cards to drop if you don’t have obvious matchup specific things to board out. Especially in response to something off-meta that you just need to side in all the answers for.

Mirror Matchups

Bring in counterspells and ditch Fiery Impulse. Saheeli, Sublime Artificer and Crackling Drake want to come in, and losing Thing in the Ice and some or all of the Galvanic Iteration and Temporal Trespass package is good.

Rakdos Midrange Matchups


Aether Gust is in, and Thing in the Ice is out. Some counterspells in, Lightning Axe out. You feel like you want it against Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet but you’d rather counter it.

Bring in some Abrade for Graveyard Trespasser and Unlicensed Hearse. Saheeli helps clog the board so you probably have to lose the Iteration and Trespass. Crackling Drake gets added as your new wincon.

Azorius Control Matchups

Bring in the counterspells so you can prevent the planeswalkers. Lose the removal and the Things. Add Saheeli and Crackling Drake for the late game.

Boros Prowess/Magecraft Matchups

Their Illuminator Virtuoso and Tenth District Legionnaire will get huge, so Saheeli to block and another Thing are good. But you mostly beat these decks if you draw your answers to hold the line until a big Trespass turn, so don’t change too much.

There isn’t a lot in your sideboard to help. Fry or Brazen Borrower in the sideboard would help if this deck gets more popular.

Red Prowess/Burn Matchups


Most of your sideboard slows you down, except Aether Gust. You really you want to land and grow and Shredder and look for a Thing. Drop a Galvanic Iteration and maybe a Trespass. Recur your Phoenixes and use them for blockers while you build a lethal turn.

Green Devotion Matchups

Bring in a Thing, Crackling Drakes, Aether Gust, and Disdainful Stroke. Lose the Axes and shift to Abrade.

Mono Blue Spirits Matchups

Bring in Mystical Dispute, Crackling Drake and Abrade. Lose the Iteration and Trespass combo as well as Thing in the Ice. Put your Phoenixes on defense and block. Repeat until your card advantage wins.

How to Beat Izzet Phoenix

The answer to “how do I beat Phoenix?” is exile-based removal or graveyard hate. If the Phoenixes are gone, then what?

Izzet Phoenix doesn’t have damage that can go to the face, and it only has 10 creatures. But even if the opponent is able to The Wandering Emperor a bird or Unlicensed Hearse another, the Phoenix can still win in a Phoenix-less world by growing a Shredder and flipping a Thing.

Rakdos

The key for Rakdos is managing the dozen pieces of instant-speed removal. Phoenix wins on big Temporal Trespass turns, and the Rakdos player needs a grip of Bonecrusher Giant and a Bloodtithe Harvester or two ready to tap if that spell is copied.

That means Fatal Push should find its way to the Ledger Shredder.

Red/Boros Aggro/Prowess

Red or Boros aggro or prowess decks just need to go fast. There’s not enough removal in those decks to manage recurring Phoenixes, but that’s okay. Pilots of those decks hear “go fast” like Hulk hears “smash.”

Remember that Kumano Faces Kakkazan exiles creatures on removal. The Phoenix player can keep finding their limited removal quite easily as they churn cards, so there’s no point in slow playing Eidolon of the Great Revel. Get it out and make them deal with it.

Devotion

Devotion does what it does to go over the top while Karn the Great Creator grabs graveyard hate. You lose when Thing in the Ice flips, so be sure to keep hands with enough ramp.

Remember to crack Tormod's Crypt or tap Unlicensed Hearse in response to the Phoenix triggers going on the stack if they still have mana open or on your turn.

Control

Control has the easiest time of it because they have a handful of exile-based removal and plenty of other answers to Ledger Shredder. Keep four mana untapped after passing the turn if you can.

Always be bluffing Emperor, especially when holding an Absorb.

Other Cards to Try

You could speed things up by reducing your number of spells for 3+ mana and adding in things like Izzet Charm if you want to go faster. Replacing Lightning Axe with Lava Coil or Strangle also adds speed.

You can increase inevitability and reliability of the extra turn combo at the expense of speed by replacing some land with Silundi Vision. A Spell Pierce or two also can help with resilience, but they’re often dead cards that don’t help to get Phoenixes.

More sideboard options to hate on white or artifacts might be a good idea as the meta shifts.

Now I need to confess something. I’ve experimented with Reckless Impulse in the Chart a Course slot. It can kill your combo, sure, so it’s dangerous, but the card lets you play the impulsed cards until the end of your next turn. I’ve found that it’s often a good way to prepare for the next turn when you have cards in hand to go off on a Trespass turn.

There are just too many times I have a Chart in hand but not enough cards to pay for the discard and actually go off that turn that I’ve been trying this. It’s probably a bad idea. But it’s an interesting space if you like to brew.

Wrap Up

Izzet Phoenix is the most fun top tier deck in Pioneer in my opinion. There’s a lot going on and you can win that turn with an empty board at upkeep, or play and flip a Thing to win the next turn. Control and aggro both lose when they run out of gas, and Phoenix is all gas. You hope the gas is actually going in the tank and you remember where you put your keys, but it’s always a good time.

If you’re looking to get into Phoenix, it’s in the middle of the top tier pack in Pioneer from a budget perspective. But a lot of that is in Izzet staples you might need anyway, like Ledger Shredder and the lands.

Ready to play birds FTW? Good luck!

And if you play Phoenix over on MTGA too, be sure to check out Draftsim’s overlay, Arena Tutor.