Season Two of the 2018 SCG Tour® is wrapping up at the Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter, and for an event that's a huge culmination of all the events and experiences on the Tour so far, SCG Baltimore might have just turned the world on its head.
All because of one card:
Arclight Phoenix may not have been on the block for long, but this big bird on campus showed the world just how seriously it wants to be taken over the weekend. I'd have to look through the archives, but I'm not sure any single card has had the winning weekend that Arclight Phoenix just did, and the only one I can think of that might have before would be Stoneforge Mystic.
Not only was there the fantastic finals match pitting eight copies of Arclight Phoenix against each other for the trophy, but it was also responsible for winning the Modern Classic and the Standard Classic? Coming into the weekend I had an idea of what the metagame would look like for the Invitational, but after this, everything could be entirely different than I had imagined.
So, what's the plan? Where do we go now that there's this new obstacle in our path? How can we show these Arclight Phoenix decks that we won't get pushed around? Well let's start by looking at some:
Both Patrick Chapin ( read here ) and Ari Lax ( read here ) had quite a bit to say about these decks and the deckbuilding choices that were made, so if you haven't read those yet, be sure to go over to Premium and do that, but what I'm going to break down here is their functioning strategies and avenues of attack.
Something amazing about Modern is the variety and complexity of interactions in any match, and when you're unfamiliar with what your opponent is trying to accomplish it can be easy to make mistakes. I'm not going to go as far as saying these Phoenix decks are going to be a flash in the pan when they're adapted to--they're definitely strong; however, I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't a few of these players' opponents still kicking themselves for a mistake they made that could have been the difference in making the Top 8 or finishing just outside of it.
The Izzet and Mono-Red Phoenix decks in Modern have a couple of important gameplans they're trying to enact and they are as follows:
Put an Arclight Phoenix onto the battlefield as fast as possible.
The best draws involve casting a cantrip and a Faithless looting to set them up in the graveyard, and then using a turn of Manamorphose or Gut Shot alongside two other spells to get their Phoenixes onto the battlefield. Their more average draws without a free spell are usually starting their clock on turn 3, but turn 2 is very possible. During Round 10 of SCG Baltimore, I played against Izzet Phoenix and in game 1, I was extremely rewarded for naming Manamorphose with my Meddling Mage in an attempt to suppress this, forcing my opponent to find another free spell to cast to transform his Thing in the Ice before I could cast Reflector Mage. While he did and I lost, keep in mind that the deck is about having velocity first and capitalizing on that velocity second, so do what you can to disrupt that.
Clean up the battlefield and establish control over it.
For Izzet Phoenix this job is shouldered heavily by Thing in the Ice, which has proven itself in creature dominated formats of the past as ruthless and effective in the right shell. The Mono-Red Phoenix decks, however, are much more reliant on cards like Fiery Temper, Risk Factor, or Flame Jab to keep the battlefield clear and the game in motion for Phoenix to continue applying pressure and bridge the gap into their stage three.
Pull ahead and stay ahead with a haymaker threat enabled by velocity.
Every time I look at a Crackling Drake in a Modern deck, I wonder how it is we arrived at this day and age, but Izzet Phoenix makes this card bigger than you may ever be able to imagine, kills opponents almost instantly, and draws a card to boot. Mono-Red's Bedlam Reveler has a much higher payoff of drawing three cards while still being sizable and easy to grow, providing reach by finding more copies of Lava Spike and Lightning Bolt to close the game out or continue controlling the battlefield.
With where Modern is now, I'd say that Izzet is a better choice than Mono-Red because of how good Thing in the Ice is, but both of these decks are very strong at what they do, and there are merits to playing either. If I wanted to beat specifically Arclight Phoenix at the Invitational this weekend, I'd probably play one of these two off the beaten path decks that gain stock as long as this deck is around.
- 1 Bottled Cloister
- 3 Chalice of the Void
- 1 Crucible of Worlds
- 1 Damping Sphere
- 3 Engineered Explosives
- 4 Ensnaring Bridge
- 2 Expedition Map
- 1 Grafdigger's Cage
- 4 Mishra's Bauble
- 1 Pithing Needle
- 1 Pyrite Spellbomb
- 1 Sorcerous Spyglass
- 2 Tormod's Crypt
- 4 Welding Jar
- 1 Witchbane Orb
- 1 Artificer's Intuition
- 4 Whir of Invention
- 4 Mox Opal
The first of these is the deck for people who like going to the DMV: Grixis Whir. Grixis Whir is not only hateful of the graveyard with maindeck Tormod's Crypt and Grafdigger's Cage, it's also full of Chalice of the Voids and Ensnaring Bridges that stop Phoenix dead in its tracks. If there were one tournament where I both would and would not play a deck like Grixis Whir, it's the Invitational.
On one hand, more of the decks I can shut out are in the field and people might not expect it, but on the other, I'm not very likely to make many friends willing of avoiding going into turns when I have a lock assembled and the day could get messy. I don't blame anyone for making the choice to play this deck, but it comes with some risks...
You must be okay with that.
- 4 Martyr of Sands
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Serra Ascendant
- 4 Squadron Hawk
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 1 Archangel Avacyn
The other deck I'd play if I were gunning specifically for Arclight Phoenix would be the deck Tom Ross wrote about last week on Premium : Mono-White Martyr. Martyr makes anyone who registers a copy of Lava Spike feel like an idiot, and Serra Ascendant might as well be a Baneslayer Angel for one mana. Baneslayer Angel and Lyra Dawnbringer are the backbone of Jeskai and Azorius Control's plan of controlling the battlefield against graveyard recursive strategies and playing one on turn 3 is much better than turn 5.
If there's a deck that no Mono-Red Phoenix player wants to play against in the world, it's probably this one. Nothing the deck is trying to accomplish comes remotely close to beating the plan Martyr has drawn up.
If you're not someone who has a big love in their hearts for either of these decks, that's okay too. Modern is still a wide open format, and you have until Round 1 of the Invitational to figure out how you can choose to fight Phoenix. The deck is so new to the format that I don't expect it to have an absurdly large number of players, but I wouldn't be surprised if it took up the same portion of a metagame percentage as Tron, Hexproof, or any other Modern deck you wouldn't consider a "fringe" archetype.
While I would absolutely believe it if you told me you played all eight rounds of Modern without seeing a single copy of Arclight Phoenix, trust me when I say you'll probably see at least one in the Standard portion. Among the three copies of Izzet Drakes opting to play the aforementioned fire-chicken in the Top 16 of the Classic, two finished within the Top 4 with one of them taking home the glory of first place. While not as new or surprising as the Modern adaptations, you don't want to be caught off guard by this deck either just because it went quiet for a little while.
It was assumed that the Phoenix decks in Standard wouldn't hold up to the ensuing midrange war being fought between Jeskai and Golgari, but that has made Standard very interesting. In Standard, beating Phoenix isn't exactly a foreign concept; Adrian Sullivan's patented combination of Treasure Map, Niv-Mizzet, Parun, and Dive Down certainly did the trick, as does Golgari presenting a large Wildgrowth Walker quickly and outracing the birds. So why did the deck do so well in this tournament?
Jeskai and Golgari both made up a drastically large portion of our Top 16. They're two of the best decks, and everyone knows that. That is why Drakes is also one of the best decks: because everyone knows Jeskai and Golgari are the best decks. The first cards to go when something like this becomes the dynamic are cheap removal spells.
It's hard to tell what people will do for the Invitational after seeing this event. Who knows if it will involve more or less answers to the deck? If you're someone who chooses to engage in the midrange arms race, don't say I didn't warn you! You're making your choice!
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 4 Benalish Marshal
- 4 Healer's Hawk
- 4 Leonin Vanguard
- 4 Skymarcher Aspirant
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
One of the other ways to beat these Izzet Drakes decks is to go all the way back to the Pro Tour and pick out some Boros Aggro decks that overload the slowest starts and can go toe to toe with the fastest. One of the things that Izzet Drakes lacks in Standard is a good sweeper like Deafening Clarion to suppress the aggressive decks.
Putting out multiple creatures in a turn or on a single card really snowballs into control of the battlefield through combat if the Izzet player is without a Goblin Electromancer. It's hard to set up and answer everything in most of the starts Boros Aggro is known for, and it is extremely punishing.
It's almost unbelievable how much has changed and continues to change throughout the major formats going into the Season Two Invitational, and I'm excited to head to SCG CON Winter and play in a tournament where every single match of Magic matters. With Top 16 on the Seasonal Leaderboard well within reach following a good finish at the Invitational, I was already feeling the pressure as Day Two of SCG Baltimore was playing out. It's the most exciting time of the year to be a player on the Tour, and I can't wait to see how things shape up!