I've had to declare that Izzet Phoenix isn't dead twice now, both in the same season! Maybe I should just make that statement evergreen.
Ross Merriam wrote an article earlier in the week about how it's time to put down Izzet Phoenix. I was very much in the same camp leading up to Mythic Championship IV, but the things I learned over the course of the weekend completely turned that around.
Of his reasons, the main two I agreed with at the time were the rise of Hogaak and the decline in Lightning Bolts, but those are both overstated. One of the things that constantly happens is that metagames shift and people decide to change their deck rather than figuring out how to fix it. Given that I decided to put down Izzet Phoenix, I'm certainly part of the problem, but I simply couldn't figure it out. Thankfully for us, two players in Barcelona did – Pascal Vieren and Allen Wu.
The biggest issue in the Izzet Phoenix versus Hogaak matchup is the fact that Hogaak goldfishes much more quickly than Phoenix does. Plus, Phoenix has a very difficult time interacting with 8/8s with trample and the plethora of other sticky threats. Figuring out how to interact with those cards in Izzet is very difficult.
Pascal took traditional Izzet Phoenix and added Set Adrift into the maindeck in place of the secondary removal spells the deck traditionally plays, such as Flame Slash and Magmatic Sinkhole. That gives you ways to deal with a Turn 2 8/8 trampler, albeit temporarily. If you're doing your job as an Izzet Phoenix player, you should be able to mop up your opponent's smaller creatures, leaving them unable to convoke a Hogaak back onto the battlefield.
Allen Wu went a step further, including Vapor Snag in his sideboard. Some other players chose Echoing Truth, but the cheaper Vapor Snag is much stronger unless you're specifically worried about things like Ensnaring Bridge. Considering we have Set Adrift, those shouldn't be much of a problem.
While Lightning Bolt not having many targets in Modern makes the deck weaker, Bolt is never bad because your opponents have life points and this deck finds itself in plenty of racing situations. The top tier of Modern often comprises a scant 50% of the metagame, which means there are always going to be decks where Lightning Bolt is a strong card.
With everything I learned over the course of the weekend, I prepped a decklist for the Sunday MCQ and posted the list in my Discord, which was then picked up by fellow podcaster and MTGO ringer VTCLA.
Five "bad" matchups and five victories? Yeah, Izzet Phoenix isn't dead.
I was short the copies of Set Adrift, but after doing some shopping on Friday, I knew which vendor had them for sale. With the MCQ starting at 9:45, I showed up early with plenty of time to acquire the necessary cards, except the vendor didn't show up until well after the start time of the event! I tried searching the room, but to no avail.
Instead of playing the MCQ, I dropped and watched my friend Varo's run to the finals of the Mythic Championshp. No regrets.
Much like my take on Izzet Phoenix after Modern Horizons came out, this list probably looks a bit strange. Set Adrift saw some play as a one-of, but it's truly the answer we need right now. Two copies of a delve spell is pushing it a bit in this archetype, considering Finale of Promise, Arclight Phoenix, and Faithless Looting compete for graveyard slots, but it's manageable. Vapor Snag plays a similar role to Set Adrift and both occupy the slots of things like Flame Slash and Lava Dart.
The rise of Mono-Green Tron also seems problematic, but I disagree. If you respect the deck with Blood Moon, Force of Negation, and the like, it's actually a much better matchup than it was six months ago. Having Set Adrift to deal with Wurmcoil Engine further bolsters your chances.
Ceremonious Rejection makes a comeback in the sideboard due to Eldrazi Tron. Since weird combo decks like Neobrand were mostly no-shows in Barcelona, the necessity for Force of Negation and Spell Pierce is much lower and we can afford to play the most powerful counterspells rather than multipurpose ones.
Please don't split your Opts and Sleight of Hands. You're light on sorceries for Finale of Promise already. Javier literally played a split because he didn't know which one was better and people just ran with it. It's not correct.
For whatever reason, people decided it was time to return to Pyromancer Ascension for Barcelona, which I don't get. One of the strongest aspects of Izzet Phoenix is that it's a graveyard deck that doesn't care about graveyard hate. Opening yourself up to graveyard hate actually mattering is a huge mistake.
Building a sideboard is a delicate balance. Here is the list of candidates.
- Blood Moon: Jund, Mono-Green Tron, maybe Eldrazi Tron, maybe Humans
- Spell Pierce: Izzet Phoenix, Azorius Control, Urza, Mono-Green Tron
- Ceremonious Rejection: Mono-Green Tron, Eldrazi Tron, maybe Urza
- Force of Negation: Azorius Control, Mono-Green Tron
- Saheeli, Sublime Artificer: Humans, Jund, Azorius Control
- Abrade: Humans, Urza, Eldrazi Tron
- Fry: Humans, Azorius Control, Izzet Phoenix
- Anger of the Gods: Humans, maybe Hogaak
- Fact or Fiction / Narset, Parter of Veils / Ancestral Vision: Jund, Azorius Control, maybe Humans, maybe Izzet Phoenix
You can't realistically fit everything you want in your sideboard, so you have to make some educated guesses. Even though I think Azorius Control could be great right now, I don't think it will show up in large numbers given its performance in Barcelona. There used to be some good overlap between mirrors, Mono-Green Tron, and Azorius Control with cards like Spell Pierce, but now maybe we should look for cards that don't necessarily overlap with the Azorius matchup.
For example, we don't need to play Fry (especially with Vapor Snag to handle Arclight Phoenix and Thing in the Ice), so we can use Abrade to handle Humans, Grixis Urza, and Eldrazi Tron's Chalice of the Voids.
I could see adding another Leyline of the Void or two if you want to really hammer Hogaak. It potentially gets much stronger without access to open decklists, as your opponent will never know if they have to bring in Force of Vigor in the dark or not.
VS Izzet Phoenix
I like having three graveyard-hate cards here on average, but with more answers to Aria of Flame and Thing in the Ice, I could see trying to cover your bases by sideboarding in the additional Surgical Extraction as well.
VS Eldrazi Tron
I don't like Blood Moon here. They aren't doing much with Tron that you can't answer and they have plenty of colorless sources to naturally cast their Eldrazi.
Blood Moons are fine here, but it depends on how aggressively your opponent is fetching basics.
You can try to bring in Blood Moon here if you want, but without more ways to kill Aether Vial, I'm not a fan. If they try to slow down their deck with more answers to what you're doing, consider bringing in the Fact or Fiction and/or Narset, Parter of Veils.
VS Azorius Control
Watch out for Monastery Mentor.
VS Mono-Green Tron
VS Grixis Urza
Ceremonious Rejection seems like it should be good, considering Urza is an artifact-based deck, but there aren't many high-value targets. Surgical Extraction isn't great at fighting Thopter Foundry / Sword of the Meek, but it's possible you have to try.
I could also see playing a slower game in this matchup with Narset and Fact or Fiction. For the most part, you should try to keep them off-balance while trying to set up a win condition. Going long, they will bury you.
VS Mono-Red Phoenix
Again, I like having two Surgical Extractions for Arclight Phoenix, even in the matchup that's trying to Lava Spike me. Set Adrift is the weakest removal spell, but it might be worth keeping in one copy for things like Shrine of Burning Rage or Saheeli, Sublime Artificer.
If you want to go further down the "I must beat Hogaak" rabbit hole, you could try something like this.
Taking a more aggressive route with Snapcaster Mage to go with our Vapor Snags could be great. Similarly, having Saheeli, Sublime Artificer to go with Vapor Snag sounds great. Snapcaster Mage also helps your Surgical Extractions have more of an impact on graveyard decks like Hogaak. It also makes your sideboard cards like Ceremonious Rejection and Abrade much stronger since you can get multiple uses out of them.
Overall, I'm more certain that the first list is actually good, but this second list is potentially great.
What about the other reasons Ross stated, such as Narset, Parter of Veils making control matchups too difficult; people knowing how to play against you; or the London mulligan? Well, those shouldn't have any impact on whether you play Izzet Phoenix. Having opponents know how to play against you puts things closer to even but isn't realistically a benefit you can take advantage of in Modern. Control is on the decline, so Narset isn't a huge issue at the moment.
As for the London mulligan, it did make basically every other deck in the format stronger, but not by much. Izzet Phoenix doesn't mulligan much, so you don't get to take advantage of it too often, but when you're able to, you'll be very happy.
Is Izzet Phoenix the best choice you can make for your next Modern tournament? Many would probably say it's Hogaak, but that can only last for so long. If everyone plays decks that are good against Hogaak, obviously Hogaak isn't very good. There's also the reluctance to buy into a deck that will likely get another card banned. Large Modern tournaments will skew toward the 'Gaak to some degree, but not as much as at the Mythic Championship. For the most part, I would expect it to be Modern as you would typically expect it.
In that sort of environment, Izzet Phoenix is actively great.