When was the last time the early weeks of a Standard format were this surprising? Leading into Grand Prix New Jersey about two weeks ago, public opinion seemed to firmly suggest that there was Golgari, and then, a tier below, everything else. Fast forward to today, and we've had a Grand Prix Top 8 devoid of Golgari and a Standard MOCS Open where only three of the top 32 decks were Golgari, and none of those three decks managed better than a 6-2 record. What could have possibly happened to change the landscape of Standard so quickly and drastically?
Alright, to be fair, Tocatli Honor Guard also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for holding down the Golgari, but the bird has definitely been the word over the past two weeks. Arclight Phoenix went from near bulk to almost $30 mythic overnight. In about two days, Izzet Phoenix went from being a meme that players were trying out as an afterthought, to becoming the focal point and weapon of choice for some of the best players in the game.
There's a lot of information that a Standard player must parse and understand in order to play either with or against Izzet Phoenix, including a tremendous amount of variance in card choices among lists. I've also seen a lot of people having difficulty in understanding their role when playing either with or against the deck ( "Who's the Beatdown?" indeed ). When a deck rises to prominence this quickly, there is always going to be some amount of misunderstanding surrounding its capabilities and place in the metagame. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to get in on the development of this deck on the ground floor, and plan to spend my time today guiding you to a better understanding of exactly what this powerful new tier-one option is capable of.
The first, and maybe most critical thing to understand is that when most people talk about "Izzet Phoenix" they are actually talking about at least two distinct decks.
Eduardo's deck is representative of what I hereby dub the "Eight Drake" style of Izzet Phoenix. Unsurprisingly, the defining features of the deck are the four Crackling Drake and four Enigma Drakes. The majority of Eight Drake lists also eschew Goblin Electromancer.
This deck is basically a combo deck, with extremely light control elements in sideboard games. While Arclight Phoenix may have earned the namesake slot, it's more of a value card here, and just another wrinkle for opponents to answer while the deck seeks to advance its primary plan: one or two-shotting an opponent with a tremendous and sometimes hasty Drake. Look how few of Eduardo's cards do anything. There are twelve creatures, six removal spells, two combo enablers, and nineteen cantrips. This is what Legacy and Modern decks are supposed to look like-not Standard decks!
The pieces here congeal into a package that gets to execute its gameplan on an incredibly regular and consistent basis. Shockingly though, despite looking like more of an all-in combo deck, the best draws of Eight Drake are a bit slower than those of the Goblin Electromancer-based version. This is due to Eight Drake's inability to set up multiple recursive Arclight Phoenixes on turn 3. In exchange, Eight Drake gets the ability to consistently kill its opponents from zero battlefield presence and gets to threaten lethal at any moment from about turn 6 onward.
Playing against this deck is an exercise in awareness. You should always be contemplating the upper limits of your opponent's damage potential on a given turn and using this to inform your own plays. Obviously, this assumes your deck possesses some method of instant speed removal, which decks have been slow in adopting. I don't expect this to hold true at the Pro Tour, and Eduardo's sideboard Dive Down's will be even more important.
Speaking of Eduardo's sideboard, we see he can transition to the powerful plan of playing a Niv-Mizzet, Parun with Dive Down protection. There are not many slower decks in the format capable of beating this setup, and I'm not sure that's going to change. Niv-Mizzet will absolutely obliterate a player who attempts to play too defensively.
Firemind's Research is capable of similarly punishing control opponents but has the bonus of functioning as an additional out to Niv-Mizzet and oversized Drakes in the mirror and against Jeskai. I like Firemind's Research in theory, but in my own games, I've found it to be a bit underwhelming, all too often sitting on the battlefield a counter short in a critical spot. I've instead looked to Search for Azcanta as my engine card, hoping it can provide me with the mana boost to win a race to Niv-Mizzet while generating some additional value and card selection. I'm still not positive which approach is better in the context of Eight Drake. The sideboard is rounded out by some additional removal, sweepers, and countermagic, allowing the deck to slow down an opponent that could otherwise outpace or answer giant Drakes.
This build has a nearly identical maindeck to the build that Josh Cho, Gerry Thompson and I collaborated on and played for Grand Prix New Jersey. This version of the deck takes a much more well-rounded approach to games, with more interaction and a more powerful suite of card selection. The tradeoff? Less consistency and an inability to put together as many one-turn KOs. That's not to say this deck is incapable of doing some explosive stuff. As mentioned above, a Goblin Electromancer that starts turn 3 on the battlefield might just deposit two or three Arclight Phoenixes in the graveyard and ostensibly end the game on the spot.
This play pattern is certainly the exception to the rule, and what's more likely is that you will seek to use Arclight Phoenix as a value engine that allows you to shift roles depending on what a given game calls for. If I were attempting to classify the role of this version of Izzet Phoenix, I would say it's entirely fluid. In fact, the closest analog in playstyle to this deck might just be Lorywn-era Faeries.
For those of you unfamiliar with the deck, Faeries prided itself on switching roles throughout the course of a game, often at a moment's notice, based entirely on what the situation called for. While Faeries would occasionally go Bitterblossom into running Scion of Oonas and obliterate an opponent, more often it would have to carefully manage the early game, slowly working to a position where its flying threats could close the game out in just a couple turns.
In much the same way, Electromancer-based Izzet Phoenix decks are more than happy to stall early games, recoup some value from their graveyard, and make a flying army that looks to end the game in just a couple swings. I often remarked that in several matchups, my Phoenixes were every bit as likely to block or dissuade an attack as they were to make an attack of their own.
People often classified games played against Faeries into two categories-games in which they stuck a Bitterblossom on turn 2, and games in which they did not. Izzet Phoenix has its own Bitterblossom analog in Goblin Electromancer. It's trivial to sculpt a perfect hand if Goblin Electromancer sticks on the battlefield.
We see a similar sideboard composition to Eduardo's deck in this list, but this version of the deck can transition to something much closer to an actual Izzet Control deck in sideboard games due to a more balanced maindeck. In fact, I think superior sideboard configurations are the main draw to this style of Izzet Phoenix. Again, I'd note that Search for Azcanta seems to do a better job facilitating this gameplan than something like Firemind's Research. Your long control games begin to look very real at that point, as you also get to leverage the card advantage and win-condition of Ral, Izzet Viceroy. When you're moving to quasi-control builds like this, I believe it's often correct to sideboard out Arclight Phoenixes. This seems obvious to me, but I was shocked to hear some people suggest they were never cutting Arclight Phoenix. Everything is contextual, but in general, anytime I hear the word "never" in relation to Magic I am skeptical.
While I would identify these as the two primary builds of Izzet Drakes, they certainly aren't the only ones. What if we just mash the two builds together?
Honestly, this deck looks pretty good to me. It's rare that you can just mash two strategies and end up with the best of both worlds, but Pascal Maynard might be on to something here. While Goblin Electromancer is absurd, it's not at its best in multiples, and maybe this deck is capable of leveraging all the aforementioned gameplans in equal measure. I love Pascal's attempt to bring Sarkhan, Fireblood into the mix, and I agree that the Niv-Mizzet, Parun arms race is a very real focal point of sideboard mirrors. Entrancing Melody is another sick piece of sideboard tech I haven't really seen much of. Blue and Red have very few answers to an Adanto Vanguard, and we had considered cards as silly as Wall of Mist and Electrostatic Field to blunt the threat. Entrancing Melody is an actual legitimate Magic card. Point to Pascal on this one.
Also over in the MOCS, CONVO told his Drakes Just Hold On, We're Going Home
I feel like this is One Dance I want to sit out. God's Plan seems to have me leaning on my Drakes in most games. To me, Sacrifices like this are just Too Much. If this does Come Thru as the best version of the deck though, CONVO is going to get to say " that one was All Me ."
So, with all these options presented, where would I be going into this week?
I'm still a fan of Electromancer-based builds, but really like Enigma Drake's ability to provide early pressure in some matchups and act as a brick wall in others, hence its home in my sideboard. Our Grand Prix New Jersey list felt very close to optimal, but I've realized that a split between Discovery and Tormenting Voice allows far better mana usage on big Electromancer turns. A maindeck Dive Down is incredible right now and will steal games left and right.
While my usual caveats regarding sideboarding apply, here's a look at roughly how I've been sideboarding against a few macro archetypes. Adjust as appropriate.
VS Go Wide Strategies
Izzet Phoenix is one of my favorite Standard decks in a long time. The adaptability, both in-game and out, feels like something Standard has been missing for a while now. I can't wait to see how the deck continues to evolve at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica.