Ashes to Ashes: Should Wizards Address Phoenix?

Each tournament, Izzet Phoenix’s impressive, sustained numbers start to look less like an outlier and more like a pattern. Patterns like these have a history of being addressed by Wizards via the banlist. So how does Izzet Phoenix stack up against past offenders? Do the deck’s decriers have a case for caging the bird? Let’s find out!

Izzet Phoenix, by Guillaume Matignon (1st, GP Bilbao)

Creatures (10)
Arclight Phoenix
Thing in the Ice
Crackling Drake

Enchantments (2)
Pyromancer Ascension

Instants (22)
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Axe
Izzet Charm
Thought Scour
Opt
Surgical Extraction
Gut Shot
Manamorphose
Echoing Truth

Sorceries (8)
Faithless Looting
Serum Visions

Lands (18)
Scalding Tarn
Polluted Delta
Steam Vents
Spirebluff Canal
Sulfur Falls
Island
Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Abrade
Anger of the Gods
Blood Moon
Ceremonious Rejection
Dispel
Dragon’s Claw
Flame Slash
Hurkyl’s Recall
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Ravenous Trap
Shatterstorm
Spell Pierce
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Explaining Phoenix’s Numbers

I won’t delve too deep here, as David’s already covered the possible non-busted reasons Phoenix is so popular. But I will include a brief analysis for posterity.

Financial Accessibility

Something Modern routinely comes under fire for is the high cost of its decks. Compared with many strategies the format offers, Izzet Phoenix ranks among the cheapest. Sure, the deck is $1000 now, but it wasn’t a month or even a couple weeks ago; the announcements surrounding Modern Horizons, coupled with Phoenix’s growing popularity, have significantly increased the price of certain Modern staples—most notably Scalding Tarn, the single most expensive card in Izzet by a mile. Add to that the fact that many players bought into Phoenix earlier than just yesterday, and lots of Modern players already own Scalding Tarns, and Phoenix becomes a very affordable option.

Loosely related is Phoenix’s status in Standard, where pundits also claim it may be the best deck. Players who own the deck in Standard don’t need much to make it work in Modern, too, meaning the deck’s presence here may have attracted players who might not even register for tournaments otherwise. It’s not only cheaper to have two decks that mostly share a core of cards; doing so also takes pressure off players to dedicate time to learning a new archetype.

Strategic Accessibility

Another key factor is Phoenix’s strategic profile. Its mass of cantrips give the deck a low skill floor, meaning newer pilots can expect to do okay with the deck—its gameplan of bin-a-Phoenix or land-a-Thing and then chain together cantrips is both powerful and intuitive. Simply being in a resource-strapped mid-game state will advantage the Phoenix deck over more interactive strategies, as topdecking but one cantrip can lead to a chain that revives the 3/2s. In this way, Izzet is a critical mass deck (like Burn or Infect) that doesn’t necessarily rely on having those pieces in the hand to begin with: they all find each other.

Phoenix also has a high skill ceiling, meaning there’s plenty to learn and master within the deck. Additional time sunk into the strategy rewards its pilots handsomely. Take Michael Bernat’s expert cantrip sequencing while blazing through the GP Los Angeles Top 8. This aspect of the deck draws pros and higher-level players to the deck; players that might win on any passable option.

Proven Pedigree

Phoenix’s profile attracts players of all skill levels. But perhaps Phoenix’s most alluring feature for many , especially those with much on the line at Magic tournaments like pros, is its pedigree. Phoenix’s numbers continue to not drop despite the target on its head, further adding credence to the idea that it is indeed the best thing to be doing in Modern. In any case, prospective players could certainly do worse; they’ll never be called scrubs for sleeving up this veritable boogeyman.

Meet the Bandidates

Our next question: what would Wizards even ban? There are a few candidates in the running, so it depends on the goals they have for post-Phoenix Modern.

Faithless Looting

A simple Google search pegs Faithless Looting as the most popular ban target according to most Modern players, with pros and content creators stoking the fire of memes at lower levels. Looting enables the deck’s fast Phoenix starts and gives the deck longevity; it’s perhaps the best card in the deck.

Wizards could hit Looting for a couple of reasons. It’s a nice target if they also want to nerf Dredge, another of the format’s top-performing strategies. And it’s of course a goner if Wizards decides they don’t want such an efficient card selection spell legal at all. I do think this hit will neuter Phoenix into the deep future. The deck will probably still exist, but it should be knocked down a tier or two, as turn-two Phoenixes will be much tougher to achieve.

I’m against a Looting ban on the grounds that the card is splashed into so many decks. (It’s also just really fun to cast, which has made it one of my favorite cards in Modern since the format’s inception.) Like Ancient Stirrings, Looting enables multiple decks, including a swath of Tier 3-and-below archetypes (Mardu Pyromancer, Grishoalbrand, Hollow One, Storm, etc.). In terms of metagame implications, banning it would be akin to banning Bolt">Lightning Bolt, as the format would shift radically in its absence, food-chain-style; while Bolt is more played overall, it’s less crucial to any strategy, as similar options exist.

R&D has also recently expressed reluctance to remove Faithless Looting, citing the format’s shifting nature. Indeed, Ancient Stirrings went through a period last year of extreme prejudice in the community, with many calling for its ban; with Krark-Clan Ironworks gone, though, these same voices have declared the cantrip safe for Modern. I can see that happening with Looting once Izzet Phoenix ceases to perform, one way or the other.

Manamorphose

Others have called Manamorphose the problem with the deck. Cutting this piece won’t hurt Phoenix as much as the Looting ban would, but I think the effects are close. Early Phoenixes still exist between Gut Shot and Surgical Extraction. Thing in the Ice becomes about a turn slower on average.

One thing I like about a Manamorphose hit is the lack of splash damage. Almost nobody plays this card! It’s splashable, sure, but there are just too few ways to profit from its enabling. I think this is the most conservative and surgical ban: it mostly just hits Phoenix, but it still lets the deck go on in some capacity. Manamorphose is an ideal ban if Wizards merely wants to take Phoenix down a notch in their update.

Arclight Phoenix

One suggestion I haven’t heard is to ban Phoenix itself. My reasoning here is that URx decks were fine and diverse before Phoenix arrived on the scene, and the other pieces of the deck all contribute to Modern’s diversity. There’s a real possibility that Wizards won’t want Phoenix in the format anymore come May 20. This is the route the company went with other diversity offenders (more on this below) like Treasure Cruise and Birthing Pod: it’s extreme, but very safe.

Other Options

Thing in the Ice has been called the best creature in the deck, with Ross Merriam going so far as to say Izzet Phoenix’s name is misleading. So why isn’t Thing a consideration? While I believe a Thing ban would significantly hurt Izzet Phoenix, I think Thing is the kind of build-around, spells-matter card Wizards wants to be okay for Modern, which is why they keep printing cards in a similar vein (most recently, Pteramander). The creature saw fringe play before Phoenix, and was obviously fine in the format at that point, so I think Phoenix is a likelier hit if it comes to sniping the creature base.

Competitive Diversity

This element strikes me as Phoenix’s biggest offense. It’s true that Modern is mostly diverse outside of Phoenix, and that Phoenix is mostly just popular at large events. But I don’t think Wizards cares so much. They banned Twin mostly* on the grounds of GP Top 8 performance, for instance, which barely affects the majority of players. It seems the company operates via a trickle-down metric, adjusting the format based on large-event performance because they have unprecedented access to those numbers, and hoping the metagames created at the top tables are reflected at the lower ones.

While other decks exist, the fact still remains that all signs point to Phoenix taking up a huge slice of the competitive Modern metagame; something like 20%. That’s more than Twin ever claimed, but I don’t think Twin should necessarily be our point of reference, as many factors contributed to its banning. There are other, more pertinent comparisons to draw, such as to Birthing Pod, Deathrite Shaman, Bloodbraid Elf, and Treasure Cruise. All these cards were banned for spearheading decks exceeding 20% Day 2 metagame shares and GP/PT Top 8 shares. Based on the numbers we have right now, Phoenix also passes that breaking point.

Cruise specifically is very close to Phoenix in format effects. It single-handedly created a cantrip-loaded UR deck that pushed 20% of the metagame share.

*Many also hold that Twin was banned to shake up the PT. While this argument is somewhat rooted in fact, we still have more evidence that Wizards’ stated reasons for the ban were actual ones, and not just distractions, so I won’t here entertain this (relatively plausible) conspiracy theory.

When the Clock Strikes…

If Arclight Phoenix is as egregious as Treasure Cruise, why isn’t it banned? I think at this point, we’re looking at less of a “why” question and more of a “when.” While the Los Angeles and Bilbao trends are troubling from a save-the-Phoenix perspective, the fact is they haven’t so far been enough to warrant direct action from Wizards. The company is likely waiting until the next scheduled update on May 20 to do something about Phoenix. As David mentioned this week, there are plenty more high-profile events on the horizon this month. There’s a nonzero chance the format corrects itself by then, perhaps adopting some of the many strategies listed on this very site to combat the recurring flier.

Likelihood of Internal Regulation

Personally, I doubt that happens. The best players already know how to best Phoenix, or at least understand their gameplans, and the deck is still crushing. I don’t buy that there’s a bunch of secret tech Modern grinders have yet to discover or wield appropriately.

The metagame may well shift a little bit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix’s share dipped slightly. But I don’t think the slight dip I predict will prove enough to protect the deck from the May 20 update.

Modern Horizons on the Way

Another argument I’ve heard for leaving the format as-is: Modern Horizons releases on June 14, and is likely to deeply alter the format in one way or another. But June 14 is three months away, and the set’s impact is not guaranteed. Wizards has never waited for seismic shifts before acting in the past—the most obvious example is their Splinter Twin ban just before Oath of the Gatewatch was released and Eldrazi took over the format. I seriously doubt Horizons prevents any otherwise warranted move in May.

Fire on the Leaves

This Modern is proving one of the most divisive in recent times, with many voicing concern over Phoenix and Dredge while others claim Modern is in a Golden Age. How do you feel about the current format? Which direction do you hope Wizards takes in regards to Phoenix? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

20 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes: Should Wizards Address Phoenix?

  1. I hope they dont ban any of those cards. Faithless looting is simply a great card selection spell that is run in numerous decks and its red’s best answer to serum visions and ancient stirrings.

    Manamorphose is only a complaint cause of pheonix. I dont hear anyone complaining due to storm. Also, it can be run in any deck that wants dirt of free can tripping since the only other option is street wraith.

    I hope they dont ban pheonix. Honestly, I dont think the deck itself is any more powerful to any than Grixis deathshadow, just easier to grasp. Pheonix is squishy and weak to surgical, but mostly, I think that pheonix itself, similar to faithless, could enable multiple decks. People just havent really expanded their view of it yet. And that would make it more like faithless or stirrings

    1. Well we have the Mono Red version, but I don’t think there’s much room to build something better than UR right now. That color combination just has so many tools at its disposal. WOTC will be more incentivized to leave Phoenix the card (and also the deck) legal if it does start finding its way into other shells.

      1. I’m working on a rakdos build. But mainly because the black discard spells also interact with the board state on a higher level than the izzet deck. And I agree with merriam, the izzet version is really a Thing in the ice deck. It’s what allows the deck to just cantrip into cantrip cause it’s a default board wipe for card draw spells

      2. My thought is the same here as it is every time a deck gets too powerful. If you are going to ban anything, ban the offending card. There is no point in making a ban that could potentially hurt the overall diversity of the format. Just ban phoenix. Thing in the ice, blue red decks in general and graveyard recursion strategies were fine before the printing of phoenix. Its a similar situation to dredge. GGT was banned for a reason and dredge was fine. They unbanned it and realized, oh crap that’s broken. So they banned GGT again and now dredge is good, but not broken.

    1. Here is my list, and I’m gonna try it at an IQ tomorrow. I’ll let you know afterwards how it went. Also, I was debating whether to run all four amalgum or 3 amalgum and 1 tombstalker. Let me know your opinion.

      4 Streetwraith
      4 arclight pheonix
      4 prized amalgum
      2 bloodghast

      4 manamorphose
      4 faithless looting
      4 smallpox
      4 lingering souls
      4 lightning bolt
      3 thoughtsieze
      3 surgical extraction
      2 fatal push

      18 lands

      Sideboard:

      3 collective brutality
      2 abrupt decay
      2 assassin’s trophy
      2 lilliana of the veil
      2 ancient grudge
      2 grim lavamancer
      2 deaths shadow
      2 shadow of a doubt

      Please feel free to send me your opinions. I’d love for this to succeed

      1. I feel like without the critical mass of cantrips, you’d often get into game states where it’s too hard to bring back the Phoenixes, because you’re topdecking actual spells instead of ones that lead into others. Smallpox engine also pushes you toward topdeck mode so I’d anticipate some tension there too. Might want to max Shadow in the board or have some other kind of steadier plan against heavy-duty hate.

        1. I originally ran skin invasion in the sideboard as another card that that would benefit me from the smallpox engine. Should it go back in the sideboard or just max on death’s shadow

        2. Ok, last question, what is your opinion on Discovery//dispersal for the discovery side? The surveil 2 then draw a card sounds good,but two mana is a lot.

        3. Yeah, I’m just gonna follow your advice and load up on death’s shadow. I might even add two the the mainboard and deduct two lingering souls. Might even add two K-Command and take out all the lingering souls. Just debating last minute changes. But definitely two shadows in the main

          1. I think that will help, but in my preliminary testing for last week’s article (Leyline Jund) I found that Shadow and Phoenix had too much tension together. Still, the Avatar will help you close out games, and you need another threat alongside Phoenix. For Rakdos I hold that Shadow is your best bet. In any case, good luck!

        1. I’m having a lot of fun playing it. It competes against everything. The street wraith are cheap card draw into my recursion combo for early game and they take my life down for the death shadows. It’s a really fun deck to play. It’s the best modern deck I’ve ever put together. I know it looks like it wouldnt work together, but it does, and a better pilot could probably get a lot of it.

        2. But Jordsn was right. I did away with the lingering souls and substituted death shadow in place of lingering. I’m obviously biased to the deck cause I made it. But if you have the cards and time, feel free to play it and share how it went

  2. “Almost nobody plays this card” when talking about manamorphose… Please let’s not forget that if WotC would ever ban that card, storm would officially die for once and for all. Which isn’t something to be wished.

    The best way to deal with Phoenix is, in my opinion, unbans. And the one unban that would be amazing against it would be Stoneforge Mystic: it would give Death&Taxes and Abzan (which should be bad MUs for phoenix decks) the right amount of push to become worth considering again without being dominant.

    1. At the IQ I played today, lots of pheonix, and the mill deck did well. I did horrible. Not my deck’s fault. Totally mine as the player. Only the second day I’ve played it and I need practice. Apparently knowing when to smallpox is absolutely crucial.

      2 things: a full 4 death shadows should be in the main. It would have made a huge difference.

      I probably would have included two skin invasions in the sideboard for matches against aggro and midrange creature decks. The tempo swing from landing a small pox on turn two or three and swinging with two 3 powered creatures is very difficult for the other player to overcome.

      Honestly, it has potential but needs to be seriously refined. It could compete with every deck I played against from lantern to BG to jund to death shadow and boggles. Half the games I lost was from me and not the deck

Leave a Reply