The story of last weekend's Team Constructed Open in Las Vegas actually begins a few months ago, after the Team Constructed Open in Dallas-Fort Worth. I was reticent to fly to an Open, but having had a great experience over the three previous tournaments of teaming with THE Bridesmaid Tannon Grace and Brennan DeCandio, I bit the bullet on a flight and joined them for what turned out to be a second finals loss.
The second dagger sealed my fate. I immediately told my teammates that I was 100% committed to the Open in Las Vegas, a tournament I had previously told our Team BCW manager I would not be attending due to the travel, proximity to Thanksgiving, and the fact that I loathe the city of Las Vegas. But in true Magic degenerate fashion, I had to chase that white whale.
Some good fortune came with the printing of Creeping Chill, which revived the Dredge deck that I'm both experienced with and love to play, but with a tournament of this magnitude I wasn't going to settle for the obvious choice, especially because it seemed like the level of graveyard hate in the metagame wasn't going to drop even as Dredge went from momentarily dominant to another tier one deck, on the level of Bant Spirits or Tron.
So my plan was to devise a list of decks to try out, work on the ones that showed promise, and default to Dredge if I didn't find anything good enough. Amulet Titan was the first deck I tried and while it performed well, it seemed clear that the deck was good in fair matchups and significantly behind against fast combo like Infect or Storm. If I was going to devote time to learning such a complex deck, there needed to be more upside.
Second on the list was to explore Arclight Phoenix. It's a very powerful card that has proven its worth in Standard, and the higher density of cheap spells and ways to get it into the graveyard that exists in Modern make it even more appealing in the larger format. Since the release of Guilds of Ravnica we've seen the card in several different Modern shells, from burn-heavy Mono-Red lists to modified Hollow One decks to a Mardu Pyromancer variant that can use Arclight Phoenix to put more pressure on combo or further its typical attrition plan.
I had played with a Mono-Red list on VS Live! and came away impressed, but the shell that caught my eye was Izzet:
The primary draw to Izzet is Thing in the Ice. It's a powerful card against any creature deck and excellent against Hollow One and Dredge. It also gives the deck a threat base that is resilient to Lightning Bolt/Lightning Helix so you're likely to overload the narrow range of removal that is effective for your opponent in the matchup. And lastly, the density of blue cantrips makes finding and rebuying Arclight Phoenix multiple times in a game much easier. The Mono-Red lists rely on their burn spells to close games rather than recurring Arclight Phoenix while this variant has more powerful cards.
My record with the above list was average, which in many instances would be enough for me to shelve the deck and move on, looking for something great. But with that average record came a realization that the deck was far from optimized, and there was a lot of potential with how powerful the deck's top draws were. I had four points of contention with the list as built:
1. Bedlam Reveler Underperformed
When Bedlam Reveler was first printed, many players tried to pair it with a pile of blue cantrips in the hopes of turning it into a high-end threat for a Delver-style deck. That quickly proved unworkable because the blue cantrips keep your hand half-full, negating the potential card advantage from Bedlam Reveler's triggered ability.
With the emergence of Mardu Pyromancer, it became clear that Bedlam Reveler worked best in a deck full of cheap, interactive spells that could stall the game on the early turns and leave both players light on resources, so Bedlam Reveler would provide a massive advantage. The Arclight Red lists utilize Bedlam Reveler effectively because they are full of burn spells and Desperate Rituals and not many cantrips, but porting the card over to Izzet was a mistake.
Moreover, Bedlam Reveler is weak to graveyard hate, which is quite common in the Modern metagame right now. Lists with a creature base of Thing in the Ice, Arclight Phoenix, and Bedlam Reveler were too vulnerable to Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, and Relic of Progenitus for my liking, as if I was going to play a deck that was weak to graveyard hate I'd just play Dredge.
To solve this issue I borrowed some tech from Standard and swapped the Bedlam Revelers for Crackling Drakes. Four mana is a lot in Modern, but in this deck Crackling Drake regularly has enough power to one-shot the opponent, making it a must-answer threat that gains immediate card advantage and plays great defense against most creatures. And with the fact that it counts cards in exile, it completely shrugs off all forms of graveyard hate.
Since I moved to Crackling Drake, I haven't been phased by graveyard hate at all, to the point where I don't think you should be bringing it in against this build. Even cards like Relic of Progenitus and Nihil Spellbomb that replace themselves require you to leave up mana in order to tag an Arclight Phoenix, and if they aren't doing that they are a waste of mana.
2. The Manabase Has Too Many Basics
Few people like basic lands as much as I do, and in a two-color deck you generally have room for plenty to minimize life loss and cover Path to Exile, Field of Ruin, etc. but this deck relies on transforming Thing in the Ice and recurring Arclight Phoenix as quickly and reliably as possible. In order to do that, you need to be able to chain cantrips and other cheap spells together regardless of which ones you happen to draw.
Sometimes that spell chain is red heavy with Faithless Looting into Fiery Temper and sometimes it's blue heavy with a Serum Visions and Thought Scour, and drawing too many basics impedes your ability to cast your spells. Two Islands quickly became two more fetchlands, and I learned to prioritize fetching shocklands unless my life total was a significant priority.
3. MOAR Free Spells
Of course, it doesn't matter what lands you have if your spells cost zero. For this reason, Manamorphose quickly emerged as the best card in the deck, quite the feat in a list featuring Faithless Looting.
Gut Shot is a staple in other Arclight Phoenix decks as another free spell that happens to be very well-positioned right now. It's very good against Humans and Bant Spirits, particularly for answering Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and it's effective against all flavors of Affinity as well as Infect, often serving as the best insurance against Inkmoth Nexus before the threat of transforming Thing in the Ice comes online.
Even in matchups where the one damage isn't relevant, serving as a free spell often helps return Arclight Phoenix or transform Thing in the Ice a turn earlier than normal, giving you a faster clock against combo and control decks.
There's also many spots where the threat of a free spell makes your opponent play more cautiously, buying you precious time or letting you tap out more aggressively for a Crackling Drake. It's easy to underestimate the power of doing something for free when the effect is so marginal, but this is a deck that thrives off of casting multiple spells in one turn so it's more valuable than the text on the card.
4. The Sideboard Needed an Overhaul
I wasn't using much of my sideboard during my first matches and in Modern, that's a problem. This list was clearly build with Dredge in mind with the full set of Tormod's Crypt and three copies of Anger of the Gods, but Dredge isn't as prevalent as it was a few weeks ago. Anger of the Gods is good against many decks in Modern so I wanted to keep those, but the Tormod's Crypts went out in favor of Surgical Extraction which is another free spell and one that I think is particularly good for this deck against Dredge.
With Thing in the Ice and Anger of the Gods, the recursive creatures aren't as threatening, but Conflagrate makes Thing in the Ice hard to transform and the reach from Creeping Chill makes it easier for the Dredge player to pace their threats against the sweepers. So my plan is to prioritizing answering those cards with my hate and then contain their creatures while attacking with Awoken Horror and Crackling Drake.
The other card I wasn't happy with was Dragon's Claw, because it's too narrow. The Burn matchup isn't good, but with the printing of Creeping Chill, Burn has become much worse positioned and isn't that popular, so I'm not willing to commit too many resources to turning it around. Collective Brutality is a great card against them while being effective in plenty of other matchups and serving as a discard outlet for Arclight Phoenix. A single Watery Grave with the fetchlands, Manamorphoses, and other cantrips were enough to enable the light black splash.
With what I learned, I built the following list:
Notes on some of the choices:
- The Lightning Axe made its way into the deck over the fourth Chart a Course in an effort to cut down on two-mana spells and gain an answer to creatures with four or more toughness.
- The Disdainful Stroke was initially a Negate, but I wanted a better card against Primeval Titan and Wurmcoil Engine. If big mana decks get more popular I would look back to the Alpine Moons that Andrew Schneider ran as a more powerful card for those matchups, but I'd rather play more widely applicable cards.
- The Ral, Izzet Viceroy came about when I went looking for a powerful threat I could bring in against midrange and control decks. Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Chandra, Torch of Defiance were the other considerations, but Ral's ability to answer a Tarmogoyf or Baneslayer Angel put it over the top.
- Fiery Temper is a staple in a lot of these lists, but I've been underwhelmed by it. It's unreliable to cast for one mana and in doing so, has to be cast at sorcery speed, which is awkward against Aether Vial decks. I want something other than Arclight Phoenix to discard for value and having some extra burn in game one is nice, but I'll be looking for other options.
The Sideboard Guide
VS Azorius Control
VS Bant Spirits
With these decks moving away from Path to Exile and toward Reflector Mage I don't think you want Dispel, but that could also be a function of me having too many cards for this matchup, since Dispel is still a fine card in the matchup. Fiery Temper gets cut because it's too vulnerable to their disruptive elements when you cast it at sorcery speed with a discard outlet.
This matchup is about keeping their battlefield in check early so they can't establish a clock while leaving their mana up to play reactively. Finding your window to land a threat and turn the corner is important, as is keeping their creatures in Lightning Bolt range.
Humans plays more at sorcery speed than Spirits and makes it easier to assume a hard control role. I'm still not sold that sacrificing the explosive potential of Arclight Phoenix on the play is correct, and you need plenty of sweepers to make this plan work, but it's what makes the most sense to me on a strategic level.
You have to take risks in this matchup in order to race the inevitability of their big spells, so put pressure on them and hope to finish them with burn spells before things go too far south.
The Engineered Explosives provides extra insurance against Empty the Warrens while also able to kill the cost-reduction creatures. I'm not sold on the Disdainful Stroke, but if they go hard away from Gifts Ungiven and Past in Flames in favor of dodging graveyard hate and grinding a long game, I'm happy.
More generally, I like to bring out some number of Faithless Lootings and Arclight Phoenixes against heavy graveyard hate, and if enough Phoenixes come out, then the Ral comes in to regain some threat density. Chart a Course is the worst cantrip because it costs two mana, and you don't need to turbo out your Arclight Phoenixes in the sideboard games.
Moving forward, I'm mostly interested in exploring more sideboard options. Anger of the Gods plays awkwardly with Arclight Phoenix but is one of the few cards that plays double duty against Dredge and other creature decks. Collective Brutality didn't come in very often so it's possible you just want to ignore Burn and shade towards other matchups, like big mana decks, or even explore other splashes. White would give you access to Stony Silence and plenty of lifegain options.
While I think I've made great strides in tuning the archetype, there's still plenty of potential left to extract here. The base-Izzet Phoenix lists are the most versatile, able to play an aggro, control, or combo game when necessary, so maximizing the deck's versatility is a tricky problem. But that versatility, along with the deck's resilience to graveyard hate, make me favor it over the other Arclight Phoenix decks.