How to Beat: Izzet Phoenix

Need a quick course on how to identify and beat Izzet Phoenix? The second article in the "How to Beat" series has some tricks on caging the bird.

Arclight Phoenix from Guilds of Ravnica has been a staple in the Pioneer format since its inception, with its namesake deck going in and out of fashion as the meta sees typical shifts. Today it stands as a pillar of the format, showing its head nearly every week in top results lists.

To Break it Down

Arclight Phoenix is seldom alone in its format dominance, frequently being accompanied by it’s partner in crime, Thing in the Ice. This 0/4 defender can be a problem for any creature-based deck, acting as a defensive blocker while waiting to thaw out into the tremendous 7/8 threat on its back side. While Thing in the Ice is no stranger to solo performances as well, the duet it offers as a dynamic counter to the style of threat provided by Phoenix creates a formidable force for many aggro and control strategies. Ledger Shredder has also been known to take the place of the Thing on occasion. This bird advisor plays double duty in the deck by enabling the Phoenix plan with its loot ability while growing into a legitimate threat on its own right. The dangerous part about this unassuming birb is that it triggers when any player casts their second spell each turn. Considering that most decks want to be maximizing their mana usage by casting multiple spells per turn, it’s quite easy for our Bird Lawyer to use an opponent’s argument against them by netting a second trigger each turn cycle. 

Fueling these threats is the deck’s suite of cantrip and dig spells that help churn through as many cards as possible while turning on and enabling the threat package. Opt and Consider serve to strengthen the Phoenix player’s hand while providing the base layer of spells to build off of. Consider is especially potent, with its ability to put up to two cards (including itself) into the yard. These one mana spells help to trigger everything in the threat package as its incredibly simple to staple one of these cantrips onto the end of a flurry of spells in a turn. Pieces of the Puzzle and Strategic Planning both act as the main way to dump cards from the library into the graveyard while simultaneously strengthening the hand. Both spells allow you to search for the card you need immediately while generating fuel for future Treasure Cruises or putting down the Phoenixes themselves. Rounding out the best cards in the deck (the ones that say “draw a card”, duh) are Strategic planning, and Pioneer’s very own Ancestral Recall – Treasure Cruise. These cards can be used to refill an empty hand in a pinch after a fruitless session of spell slinging, or establish complete dominance in the card advantage race. Chart also has the added benefit of discarding phoenixes that get trapped in hand, which is absolutely something to note. 

Phoenix has been known to employ a myriad of burn spells to help keep board states in check, from Play with Fire and the Shock variants in its early days to Strangle, Fiery Impulse, and Lightning Axe today. The goal with all of these cards is generally the same – deal as much damage for 1 red mana as possible to make sure that Phoenixes and Things in the Ice can survive in play uncontested. Lightning Axe similarly acts as a means to discard stranded Phoenixes in hand, and has been known to target one of the Phoenix player’s own creatures when the case has called for it. Thing in the Ice is capable of surviving the Axe if the axe would remove the counter, ledger shredder can quickly outgrow the 5 damage, and targeting a phoenix with the axe for the sake of playing three spells in a turn just lets the bird come back into play anyway. 

The last two cards in this section go together like peanut butter and jelly. . Temporal Trespass in combination with Galvanic Iteration can just take over a game by stealing turns from an opponent for an insanely cheap cost should delve be paid. Paying UUUUR to take 2 additional turns when there’s a threat in play is absolutely backbreaking. Even without a threat, it’s not uncommon to see these spells create massive value while interacting with other cards in the deck.

Recognizing the Flock

Among decks in the top tiers of the Pioneer format, Phoenix is one of the simpler to readily identify. They are one of the few decks playing Steam Vents and Spirebluff Canal, and the most popular of those that do by far. The cantrips are also frequently a giveaway coming off of a Hall of Storm Giants or Riverglide Pathway. While Phoenix isn’t the only deck in the format to be taking advantage of the suite of cantrips available, it will much more frequently than others put lands and other dig spells into the grave with Consider.

How to Cage the Birds

Phoenix operates in such a manner that there are three main axis to look at in terms of getting in front of the problem. First and foremost, Phoenix is a graveyard focused deck. While graveyard hate is generally a rarity, most decks are packing it in some form or fashion in their sideboard. Among main-deckable graveyard hate pieces, Graveyard Trespasser, Unlicensed Hearse, and Scavenging Ooze are typically the most commonly seen. There are two main targets for these grave hate pieces; Phoenix itself, and the Delve spells. Combining a mix of both targeted slow hate (such as the Hearse) that can deal with a phoenix in the main deck with a broader more general grave hate piece such as Soul-Guide Lantern or Grafdigger’s Cage / Weathered Runestone in the side is the most effective way of combating both of these axis. While graveyard hate is an effective answer to the general idea of the deck, it will still typically be packing threats that absolutely do not care about the graveyard, so this should be kept in mind when approaching the matchup. 

Another option for combatting the airborne menace is to limit the casting of spells. Phoenix looks to generate value by spending each turn casting several spells, and every payoff it’s ever used has rewarded this behavior. Rule of Law effects – typically seen in this format as Deafening Silence, Damping Sphere, or Archon of Emeria – will prove the most useful as they stop the deck at its source. These effects, while devastating in the short term, shouldn’t be relied on as a sort of “I win” button though. Phoenix has been known to play spells such as Brazen Borrower, as well as the powerful Otawara, Soaring City to combat this very strategy.

Lastly, several decks in the format choose to exploit one of the most glaring flaws of the Phoenix deck; it typically plays very few threats. While the plan is to generally recur half of these threats, making conventional removal spells such as Fatal Push less effective, exile based removal can be very potent. Red has access to such hits as Flame-Blessed Bolt and Lava Coil to put these threats away for good, while Extinction Event and Settle the Wreckage can be potent for the decks that can afford to include them. 

The main thesis for Phoenix is a two-pronged attack that requires multiple different flavors of answer, and sometimes the best way to win the game is to play it. It’s generally recommended to combine two or perhaps all three of these forms of hate if Phoenix proves to be a real issue in a particular meta game.

Final Thoughts

Izzet Phoenix is a strategy that many players enjoy as they chase their primal urge to sling spells and accrue value. It is extremely popular and sure to show up at every tournament regardless of the deck’s overall meta share or position of power within, so it’s generally a good idea to keep the deck in mind when crafting a sideboard plan. The deck requires some amount of familiarity to best with any regularity, but fortunately there is plenty of content covering the deck in its many iterations available. Phoenix is a Pioneer mainstay, and will be around in some form as long as the birds remain legal in the format, meaning that taking this deck off of one’s radar is always a mistake. Its consistency is unrivaled, and its threats are resilient enough to break through the line of even the most removal heavy builds, which means that this deck is one that should be first considered when brewing.

  • Author

    Michael "Pioneer Brewer" Schwander Playing jank decks since 1999. From the first pack of Prophecy he opened from a Wizard Magazine, he has been digging into off-the-wall strategies some would call "cute" - that is, until those people get hit with 20 damage on turn two from an Ornitopter equipped two Colossus Hammers.

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