Izzet Phoenix is the best deck in Modern. That's indisputable at the moment, but why is that the case? As best decks go, it's entirely fair and very beatable, so why does it continue putting up huge numbers, both in metagame share and in the winner's metagame?
The Best Players Are Playing It
Izzet Phoenix is exactly the type of deck that strong players flock to: their decisions matter, they have plenty of them, they get to juke their opponents in sideboarding, and overall get to feel smart by playing the deck. Also, it wins a lot.
When the best players are all playing the same archetype, plenty of them are poised to do well. You have GP Top 8s like the one in Tampa with four strong players playing the deck, but what about the other strong players running Izzet Phoenix that didn't do well? Well, they get ignored if the narrative is "Izzet Phoenix is too powerful and Faithless Looting should be banned."
You could make the argument that the best players all coming to a consensus on what deck to play is scary, but a lot of the same top-level players came to those conclusions about Sultai Midrange at the last Mythic Championship and with decks like Death's Shadow and Humans. People are fallible. Sometimes they make incorrect decisions, whether it's about what deck to play or how to approach a matchup.
It's Similar to Twin
Izzet Phoenix is difficult to play against, build your deck to fight, and sideboard against. Overall, it exists in a space that's similar to the Splinter Twin decks that used to exist in Modern. Hell, it's even similar to Ironworks in that regard. That said, people eventually adapted to Tempo Twin and it's even easier to adapt to Izzet Phoenix.
Here are some things that aren't as good against Izzet Phoenix as you'd expect:
Honestly, this is probably where Izzet Phoenix is getting the most percentage points. Because of the namesake card, players overvalue how much it actually means to the deck, similarly to when they brought in a bunch of Disenchants against Twin, only to lose to Snapcaster Mage / Lightning Bolt or things like Keranos, God of Storms.
If you can include graveyard hate that is good against the non-Phoenix portion of their deck (and is ideally not costing valuable cards in order to do so), you'll have a huge leg up in the matchup. If you couple that with threats that ignore Lightning Bolt and/or ways to remove Thing in the Ice, they're going to have trouble beating you.
If you don't have anything that fits those criteria, I would be hesitant to bring in the above cards. Leyline of the Void is good if it's in your opening hand and you never draw another copy of it. Rest in Peace is slightly worse, since it costs mana. Surgical Extraction is the best of the bunch, but I'd recommend having a strategy that doesn't revolve around exiling one of their many threats.
Players will have some mix of Crackling Drake; Thing in the Ice; Pteramander; Snapcaster Mage; Pyromancer Ascension; Chandra, Torch of Defiance; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to beat you with, even if you remove their Phoenixes. Some of the additional threats are weak to graveyard hate, but that's mostly trending down as people realize their tertiary threat shouldn't walk into the hate that people are already bringing in.
Find a different way to beat their Arclight Phoenixes, because your opponents have already figured out how to win without them.
Playing Decks That It's Good Against
We have reached the point where you can actually metagame in Modern. Izzet Phoenix is a large enough portion of the metagame that you can do very specific things to your deck choice or decklist and benefit from it, which isn't always the case in the format.
You could make Humans a little better against Izzet Phoenix if you wanted to, but it might take something like maindeck Dismember in order to beat Thing in the Ice. Other than that, they don't have many ways to answer your go-wide strategy and they certainly aren't racing you. Anafenza, the Foremost is also important, both against Phoenix and Dredge.
Somewhat miraculously, Thing in the Ice is an 0/4 creature that no one can seem to beat. At its very best-case scenario, Thing in the Ice will kill you Turn 4 with two Lightning Bolts. A Turn 5 or even Turn 7 kill is more realistic, yet here we are.
When there's a creature that's the biggest, baddest thing on the battlefield, you find ways to ignore it rather than play into it. Tarmogoyf got you down? Try playing some creatures with evasion, going wide, or burning your opponent out. The same applies here with Thing in the Ice.
You could also look at what sideboard cards are popular in Izzet Phoenix and play a deck that they currently aren't respecting. For example, if they stop playing Blood Moon, break out the big mana. When graveyard hate is at a low, bust out Dredge. For a while, it was playing Ensnaring Bridge, but now the Izzet Phoenix players are overloading on artifact removal.
The best thing you can do is be proactive with your deck choice. Rather than wait for everyone to finally cut their Blood Moons or Shatters, pay attention to the Modern metagame and what people are saying about it online. If the general consensus becomes "this field is too harsh for Burn," you can expect people to start cutting their sideboard cards for Burn as its popularity wanes.
We're in a similar spot currently where players used to play three copies of a lifegain card, but now all you see is two Dragon's Claws or one or sometimes zero. Care to guess what that number is going to be next week?
As Whir Prison and Tron rise up, you can expect the numbers of Shatters and Ceremonious Rejections to increase, and players will cut their less useful or narrower sideboard slots in order to fit those in. If you're playing Burn, you'll be very happy in a week or two, especially if Tron gets more popular.
Here's a list of things that are good against Izzet Phoenix:
- Creature decks that don't care about Lightning Bolt but can remove Thing in the Ice (Golgari Midrange, Grixis Death's Shadow, Faeries)
- Graveyard hate with a low opportunity cost (Relic of Progenitus, Nihil Spellbomb, Scavenging Ooze)
- Big mana (Tron, TitanShift, Amulet Titan)
- Spell-based combo that doesn't care about Lightning Bolt (Ad Nauseam)
- Artifact decks that don't care about Lightning Bolt and have Ensnaring Bridge (Whir Prison, Lantern Control)
- Chalice of the Void
Whir Prison did great at Grand Prix Bilbao. Lantern Control made Top 8 in the hands of Sam Black at Grand Prix Tampa. Tron annihilated the Hunter Burton Memorial Open (and that field also had many copies of Izzet Phoenix). There was also an all-Tron finals in the recent Magic Online MCQ (and one of them was even Mono-Blue)!
Dredge is another deck that continues to overperform and it's a deck that, aside from maybe not playing enough hate or not playing decks that are naturally good against it, people know how to fight.
With Dredge, you're basically only going to lose to your fail rate because a couple of Surgical Extractions will not stop you. Your best-use case is probably sniping an early dredger and hoping to slow them down so that Thing in the Ice or Arclight Phoenix will have enough time to beat them down. Going long, they will eventually burn you out with Creeping Chill and Conflagrate or overwhelm you with recursive creatures.
Jonathan Orr lost in the finals of #SCGPHILLY to Izzet Phoenix with his Golgari Midrange deck after narrowly losing to three Arclight Phoenixes, but only when a second Lightning Bolt came off the top for Austin Collins to win the race in Game 2. The final game was anticlimactic as Orr was short on land the entire game.
Azorius Control could be excellent with maindeck Relic of Progenitus, which I would advocate for over Rest in Peace because it allows you to grind with Izzet. The Chalice of the Void versions are also interesting and potentially great.
There are also some decks that used to be great against Izzet Phoenix, but are less good now that they've adapted, such as Burn. Most lists play Ancient Grudge or Shatterstorm, so Whir Prison is getting worse. The Hardened Scales matchup, which used to be close, seems to have slanted heavily in Phoenix's favor.
Izzet Phoenix is a great deck, but it's not unbeatable.
As a Discard Deck, Should You Draw First Against Izzet Phoenix?
Roshen Eapen won Grand Prix Tampa with Grixis Death's Shadow, and he chose to draw first against Izzet Phoenix every chance he got. The rationale was that with his discard spells, he could make Arclight Phoenixes difficult to ever bring back if he forced them to be on the play, and therefore have fewer resources.
I find that difficult to believe and not just because it goes against the common wisdom. All it takes is a singular Opt, Sleight of Hand, or Faithless Looting to generate enough spells to return an Arclight Phoenix. It's not a guarantee to work, but you still have outs.
Given that the matchup can hinge on finding a Death's Shadow or Gurmag Angler and protecting it from Lightning Axe, I'd much rather be on the play. Grixis isn't winning any of the longer games, which makes it the beatdown deck. Digging into your bag of tricks and approaching the matchup from an unconventional way does little to sway that argument.
Even if I'm wrong and Roshen (or the other folks who also suggested drawing first) did break it, that's only against current configurations and playstyles of Phoenix. For example, it's entirely possible that if your opponent's plan is to deprive you of resources, you should be looking to hardcast those Phoenixes.
Honestly, the majority of the most popular decks in Modern could beat Izzet Phoenix if they wanted to. Dredge, Tron, Burn, Whir Prison, Golgari Midrange, Azorius Control, and everything else could do a lot to improve their Phoenix matchup. The very least you could do is ensure you are presenting the correct 60 in the post-sideboard games.
Eventually, the format will shift when people start playing decks that beat Izzet Phoenix with regularity. Remember when Death's Shadow burst onto the scene and people were clamoring for a ban? Modern has the capability of righting itself, and if it doesn't happen in a month or so, the upcoming Modern Mythic Championship will absolutely get us there.
Faithless Looting is on my list of cards I believe will eventually be banned in Modern, but we're not quite there, especially with Modern Horizons to shake things up in a few months. A ban isn't likely before the Mythic Championship and isn't likely immediately following the release of Modern Horizons, so Faithless Looting will be around for a while.
Is Faithless Looting incredible? Absolutely. It was good enough to get me all the way to the finals of a Pro Tour. If you want a card to be banned, it needs to be because it's more than popular and very good. It has to be oppressive, and neither Faithless Looting nor Ancient Stirrings is there yet.