This week I had the opportunity to reconnect with a dear friend. Arclight Phoenix, formerly the jewel of Modern, has faded into obscurity ever since the demise of Faithless Looting. Even in Pioneer, the birds are mostly obsolete and forgotten. Izzet Phoenix still has fans, but it no longer has champions.
But if there’s one certainty, it’s that a phoenix never truly dies. The birds will rise again; says so right on the box. So when David suggested Magmatic Channeler as our brew-around card for last week’s episode of Faithless Brewing, I knew that Izzet Phoenix was a deck that I wanted to revisit.
I threw together a list, joined a Pioneer league, and rattled off a quick 2-3. Immediately I knew two things: 1. Magmatic Channeler is the perfect card for Izzet Phoenix, and 2. the deck might be great, if I could clean up my build and play tighter.
Flash forward three leagues, and here I am on a nice streak (4-1, 5-0, 3-2) and eager to share my findings about the new Channel Phoenix. This deck is excellent, and an absolute blast to play. Just don’t call it a comeback!
Izzet Phoenix is squarely a midrange deck in Pioneer, and a slow one at that. This may come as a surprise to players who recall the glory days of Modern, where degenerate sequences like Thing in the Ice into Manamorphose + Lightning Bolt + Faithless Looting + Surgical Extraction were commonplace. But that was a different time, and Pioneer is a different format, with vastly inferior tools.
Consider the enablers you have to play in Pioneer: beyond Opt, your one mana staples are Lightning Axe, Wild Slash, and Spikefield Hazard. These are defensive tools; they are best when picking off creatures the opponent invested cards and mana into. Your card selection comes primarily from two mana plays like Chart a Course, Strategic Planning, and Izzet Charm. With clunkers like these, you can forget about quick kills, without even accounting for the prevalence of cheap removal like Fatal Push to slow you down further.
With the deck seemingly downgraded at every spot compared to its Modern counterpart, why even bother with Pioneer Phoenix at all?
Ah yes — Treasure Cruise. I bet you forgot about Treasure Cruise (I sure did). This card is still legal in Pioneer, and it’s still as busted as ever. Chaining one Treasure Cruise into another is so powerful and efficient that it covers nearly all of this deck’s sins. And while you’re greedily casting Ancestral Recall turn after turn, you get to return more and more Arclight Phoenixes to close out the game. It’s a giddy feeling, something that even diehard Phoenix fans in Modern never got to experience.
Know Thy Enemy
Okay, so Pioneer Phoenix is a midrange deck with a Treasure Cruise engine. Why does that matter? Let’s take a look at what the opposition is up to.
Today’s Pioneer is extremely bifurcated. On one side are the powerful engine decks: Lotus Field combo, Yorion control (including 5c Niv-Mizzet, Jeskai Lukka, and Esper Control), Wilderness Reclamation, and 4c Omnath of various flavors. These decks generate ever-increasing resources as the game goes longer, and are part of the reason why nickel-and-dime midrange decks like Sultai Delirium and Rakdos Pyromancer have struggled to find a foothold.
On the other side of the spectrum are the aggro decks, led by Mono-Black and Sram Auras, and followed by Spirits, Red Aggro, Humans, Gruul, and Naya Winota. These decks present a reasonable clock, but are usually not fast enough to win on speed alone. Instead, aggro decks have to support their offense with modest disruption like Thoughtseize, countermagic, or protection effects like Karametra’s Blessing or Brave the Elements. Turn 4 kills are rare, and it’s not uncommon to see aggro decks incorporate grindy elements to combat opposing removal and play a longer game.
This means that against aggro you’ll be asked to play defense early with spot removal, and then seize control by overpowering whatever recursion or disruption they might bring. Izzet Phoenix excels in this role, because Treasure Cruise + Arclight Phoenix easily trumps Lurrus of the Dream-Den or Castle Locthwain. More importantly, aggro decks in Pioneer assume that the common removal spells are Fatal Push, Wild Slash, and Stomp. Three toughness is not going to save you from a Fiery Temper or Lightning Axe, and no amount of Brave the Elements or Karametra’s Blessing will prevent an Awoken Horror from flipping.
On the other hand, the engine decks in Pioneer present a serious problem, because most of them can effectively “go infinite” on resources if the game drags on. This puts the onus on the Phoenix deck to play the aggressor, and here the cracks start to show. There is a hard cap on how much damage the Phoenix deck can deal, and how many times Arclight Phoenix can be recurred before you simply run out of deck.
Put another way, the Treasure Cruise engine is simply too small to overpower a Lotus Field engine, or an unchecked Omnath, or a Niv-Mizzet + Bring to Light chain, or a string of Uros (it doesn’t help that Lightning Axe only deals 5 damage). In these matchups, Izzet Phoenix has to resort to the same bag of tricks that other Pioneer aggro decks rely on: a reasonably fast clock paired with light disruption, usually in the form of countermagic from the sideboard.
Now that we know what we’re up against, we can narrow down the optimal build. The spell package already includes plenty of cheap defensive burn, so we’re really looking for supporting players that can pressure quickly when we are forced into the beatdown role. We’ll also need a generous suite of sideboard disruption, and some specific tools against what is still a narrow metagame all things considered.
Here’s where I’m at after a week of league play:
It may not seem like much, but Zendikar Rising actually brought a number of important upgrades. Izzet Phoenix sees a huge percentage of its deck each game, so these small improvements really add up over the course of a league.
First up, Riverglide Pathway. The Pathways are frankly incredible in Pioneer and they allow Izzet Phoenix to finally cut Fabled Passage without regrets. Fueling delve was nice, but early tapped lands are extremely punishing for a 20 land deck, so I’m happy to bench the Passages. With fewer effective basic lands, Sulfur Falls in turn becomes less reliable, so Shivan Reef steps in. I’m suggesting a 1/1 split but you could easily play 2 Shivan Reefs and 0 Sulfur Falls.
I just called this a 20 land deck, but it actually works better as 19 lands plus 2 Spikefield Hazards. Hazard is a gorgeous removal spell in Pioneer, happily picking off Elvish Mystics and Bloodsoaked Champions while occasionally sniping Teferis or even Uros. For a deck that is often just looking for any 1 mana spell to re-buy Phoenix or fuel a Treasure Cruise, stashing extra spells in your mana base feels great. You could perhaps go up to 3 Hazards, trimming a Wild Slash, but tap lands are not super attractive for a deck that likes to spend all of its mana every turn.
The Secondary Threats
The other major upgrade comes from the 2 slot. Here you are looking for secondary threats that can form a bridge to your Treasure Cruise / Phoenix endgame, or apply pressure if the matchup calls for speed. Options include Magmatic Channeler, Young Pyromancer, Thing in the Ice, Sprite Dragon, Pteramander, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.
None of these are going to pass the “dies to removal” test, and none are essential to the deck’s plan. On the other hand, Izzet Phoenix excels at creating small tempo windows in the early game, so you are rewarded for having high-upside proactive threats to deploy. There is a massive difference between saying “The coast is clear, now I’ll deploy a creature to snowball my advantage” and saying “The coast is clear, I guess I’ll cast Strategic Planning.”
Magmatic Channeler is the best of the bunch, because it can make a solid contribution in any board state. In this deck it reaches 4/4 almost effortlessly, even after delving your graveyard for Treasure Cruise. It goes without saying that Phoenix loves discard outlets, which Channeler provides on a body that survives red removal and swings for meaningful chunks of damage.
More importantly, Channeler also provides the game’s most crucial resource: mana. An active Channeler gives you two extra looks to find missing land drops, fuels delve, and lets Fiery Temper function as a true one mana spell. Thanks to Channeler I now consider Fiery Temper an actively good card, which is a dream I had almost given up on.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Sprite Dragon. If Magmatic Channeler’s calling card is versatility, Sprite Dragon is a specialist. You only want it against opposing engine decks (combo, ramp, and control) where closing speed matters more than anything else. It generates power at the same rate as Young Pyromancer (+1 damage per spell) but Sprite’s damage has haste where Peezy’s Elementals do not — a crucial difference when picking off planeswalkers or racing to deal the finishing blow. Don’t hesitate to loot these away against aggro decks, and then side them all out (unless you suspect Rest in Peace, in which case one or two Sprites can be a decent hedge).
What about the other options? Your burn suite is already strong against aggro, which makes Thing in the Ice largely redundant. Young Pyromancer is a decent generalist, but it’s fragile and doesn’t truly excel in any matchup. Channeler has made Jace mostly obsolete, and Pteramander is untested.
There are other cards to consider in small numbers, like Brazen Borrower, Rielle, the Everwise, The Royal Scions, Teferi, Master of Time, or Ox of Agonas. These cards are decent but not truly necessary, so for now I suggest a more streamlined build.
The good news is that with so much card selection, even a couple copies of useful sideboard tools can go a long way. The bad news is that there are very few match-winners available in the Izzet colors, particularly against the engine decks where you need the most help. I’ll summarize my findings so far, but treat this as a work in progress.
Against aggro decks you don’t need much help, but Anger of the Gods and Thing in the Ice provide a nice hedge against the fastest starts. Thing is especially brutal against Sram Auras, and it’s wise to diversify your threats so you don’t get hosed by Rest in Peace. I typically sideboard as follows against aggro decks:
+1 Anger of the Gods +2 Thing in the Ice +2 Magma Spray
-4 Sprite Dragon -1 Strategic Planning
Against the engine decks, I am typically looking to cut Lightning Axe, 3-4x Magmatic Channeler, all but one Spikefield Hazard, and 1-2x Wild Slash. Channeler isn’t bad per se, but they aren’t afraid of it and you need more slots for countermagic.
Mystical Dispute is the most important tool against control; unfortunately, they will have Mystical Disputes of their own, and there’s a risk that Dispute will become dead since you are unlikely to kill them quickly (ditto for Spell Pierce). Disdainful Stroke is well positioned, but Izzet Phoenix is a deck that needs to spend a lot of mana on its own turn: leaving 2 mana up in the hopes of sniping a Niv-Mizzet or Dig Through Time can hurt more than it helps.
Against Lotus Field, the strongest card will always be Damping Sphere, but this also hurts you, so I’d avoid it. Alpine Moon is risky; it lets them play a Lotus Field without sacrificing anything, and then they can bounce your Moon or Wilt it and go off easily. Instead, your best bet is Narset, Parter of Veils, backed by light countermagic and a good clock. Again, Mystical Disputes and Spell Pierces become dead if the game drags on, so try to land a Sprite Dragon and build pressure early. Also beware of Niv-Mizzet, Parun: I would leave in a single Lightning Axe for this reason alone.
Soul-Guide Lantern is your concession to Oops All Spells, since you can’t play Grafdigger’s Cage. Thing in the Ice + Anger of the Gods are also decent here. Against some flavors of Uro decks you can also hedge with Soul-Guide Lantern; the 6/6 is a pain to remove once it enters the battlefield.
Cards of uncertain value are Fry and Aether Gust. Green and red are currently on the downswing in Pioneer, so Gust doesn’t have a lot of targets. 4c Omnath is one of your hardest matchups, and Gust helps a little bit here, but it has the same problem as Disdainful Stroke (you hurt yourself badly by leaving 2 mana up each turn). Fry might not be needed at all; it’s primarily a hedge against Narset that can also kill Omnath or a Venerated Loxodon, but these are fringe applications. There’s definitely room for improvement in these slots, so if you have any sweet tech, I’m all ears.
Should you play this deck in Pioneer? If you’ve enjoyed Izzet Phoenix in the past, my answer is an unequivocal Yes. The new additions from Zendikar Rising are tremendous upgrades, the deck attacks the meta from a unique angle, and it’s always a blast to play. Somehow, Phoenix has even become a budget strategy: the entire list can be yours for less than 50 tix on Magic Online, and you’ll get to play a ton of great Magic while racking up plenty of wins.
Is this deck a Tier 1 strategy poised to win the next Pioneer Challenge? That’s less clear. I went 12-3 in league play this week with the exact list posted above, but that’s not a big sample size. What I do know is that this build absolutely crushes creature decks, and it puts up a strong fight against the engine decks, although you are unfavored in game 1. The engine decks are a larger chunk of the winner’s metagame, which is cause for concern. But on the plus side, that just means there is room for improvement, and more gains to be made.
Happy brewing, and may your Phoenixes rise again!
Dan Schriever is co-host of the Faithless Brewing Podcast and CEO of FaithlessMTG. As a brewer, his goal is to help each Magic card become its best self.