(Modern) Izzet Phoenix Primer

Let’s face it, variance is a big part of the game of Magic.  Our decks are shuffled, our pairings are randomized.  There are, however, many levels of decision making that are allow us to leverage our luck and capitalize on our fortune.  When we chose to mulligan an opening hand, for example, we are hoping that we might find six cards that provide better opportunity for a victory.  This balance of risk (determining that losing a card on a mulligan might be worthwhile) with reward (possibility for a better opportunity in a new starting set) is what makes this game an exciting and frustrating experience all at once.

One very important level of decision making occurs long before we sit down for our first match.  In some ways, deck selection may be the most important aspect of a player’s game. Deck choice is not a decision I take lightly.  As I approach a large event, which 75 to register is a thought that lingers in my head constantly.  We are often drawn to the style we prefer playing or the archetype we have the most experience in but, for competitive-minded players like myself, the deck has the greatest chance of winning an event must always be considered.  In order to make an informed decision on the subject, constant attention must be payed to the meta that is constantly shifting as deck trends develop and builds react and adapt.  This is what makes Modern great.  I’ve often made claims of ‘best deck in the format’, however, we all known there could never really be one.  I may even argue that the most represented deck (based on metagame share) just might not be a good choice given that a majority of players will generally have it in mind when preparing sideboards.

As I approached this past weekend, I couldn’t, for the life of me, decide which deck to take to a local 1K event.  I strongly considered UW Control knowing that the meta would likely be full of Phoenix strategies and Dredge decks and I’d want to be prepared with Path to Exile and Terminus but I wasn’t sure I wanted to slog through a full day event with a win condition-light control build.  I also thought about Spirits, as I’ve had lots of reps with the deck, and felt that it has proven to have game against most other strategies in the format but I wasn’t quite sold on it either.

Ultimately, I decided I’d bring Izzet Phoenix.  Though this deck choice is contrary to my previous suggestion of avoiding what appears to be the most represented deck in the format, I found myself thinking that this build might just be fast and resilient enough to succeed despite the hate that others were packing.

I was right.  I won the event, losing only one very close match to Mono Red Phoenix.  During the event I referenced Ross Meriam’s sideboarding guide from December.  As you can see, his list is quite a bit different from my own and, after just two months, considerably outdated.  I thought I might pay it forward by providing an updated primer to share my own findings with a list that I feel is well-suited to stand its ground in a meta full of burn, control, humans, and one-mana 13/13’s.

Corey’s Izzet Phoenix [Feb 2019]

Creatures (12)
Crackling Drake
Arclight Phoenix
Young Pyromancer
Thing in the Ice

Spells (30)
Izzet Charm
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Axe
Surgical Extraction
Gut Shot
Faithless Looting
Thought Scour
Serum Visions
Lands (18)
Steam Vents
Spirebluff Canal
Scalding Tarn
Polluted Delta

Sideboard (15)
Ceremonious Rejection
Anger of the Gods
Beacon Bolt
Blood Moon
Spell Pierce
Engineered Explosives
Dragon’s Claw
Surgical Extraction

The Plan

It should be no surprise that the goal of an Arclight Phoenix deck is deal lethal combat damage to your opponent as quickly as possible.  For that reason, I’d consider it an aggressive tempo deck.  You’ll use nearly every mana you are able to produce over the first few turns of the game as a large majority of your spells are one-mana draw spells.  In fact, we’ve packed 16 one-mana draw spells (or filter in the case of Faithless Looting) and a playset of Manamorphose, as our primary goal is benefit from creatures that care about the quantity of spells cast.  An additional benefit of this large number of very castable draw spells is an opportunity to run just eighteen lands.  With cards like Serum Visions, Opt, and Faithless Looting in the deck, most one-land hands are keepable, and, in many cases, preferred.  In fact, I don’t find myself mulliganing much at all with this build with the the exception of hands that are >%50 lands and little to do early on or no-landers.

Let me ‘wet your pallet’ with this example of a favorable opener:


This hand packs tons of gas, has ample land, and allows for two diverse plans of action:

  1. Fetch on turn one to save for Manamorphose >> Serum Visions >> Faithless Looting (Pitch Phoenix and attack) on turn two
  2. Cast Serum Visions turn one to set up for Thing in the Ice on turn two (hopefully having seen some more opportunities to trigger Thing via Serum’s scry)

In either case, there is nothing terribly reactive about the plan.  Though Izzet Phoenix can play a game that involves removal spells and counter magic, in almost every case, coming out of the gate swinging is Plan A.  Phoenix pilots subscribe to the plan that the best defense is a good offense and this is apparent in cards like Thing in the Ice, who not only attack for seven as early as turn three, but set your opponent’s gameplan back in the process.

The beauty of the deck is that it can be both blisteringly fast and resilient.  An aggressive start from Arclight Phoenix may draw an opponent’s removal spell to “stem the bleeding” but, unless that removal spell is Path to Exile, recouping lost Phoenixes in future turns can be as easy as casting the spells you were already primed to use.

Cantrip Sequence

If one were to play this deck with no prior experience, there is a good chance that they might just be fortunate enough to Thought Scour a few Arclight Phoenixes into their graveyard and string together three spells to attack their opponent to death.  Where the aforementioned variance comes into play here, is whether or not those Phoenixes happen to be the top two cards of your library or not when a card like Thought Scour is cast.  With that in mind, I’d argue that there is a bit of a cast order to our many many draw spells that results in the best odds for success.

Let’s start with Faithless Looting.  A common misconception is that a turn one Faithless Looting is usually correct for this deck.  It can be, however, I am more often interested in casting Looting after I’ve drawn from other cantrips to see the most chances to find a Phoenix to discard.

Looting may say ‘draw two cards’, but I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘draw spell’.  Rather than replacing itself, this card allows you to, instead, filter through the cards that are already in your hand.  Before casting it, ask yourself, “Am I already satisfied with the cards in my hand?”  Yes, having a Phoneix at the ready in your graveyard may be appealing, but making the decision on turn one of which cards you are ok pitching when you don’t find a Phoenix, is not where you want to be, especially against an unknown opponent.

Let’s look to something else…

Of the choices I’ve included in my list, Serum Visions is likely the most appealing play on our first turn.  Scrying 2 allows you to set up for the next turn’s draw.  This is especially helpful when you’ve kept a one land hand and aim to hit a second land drop on the next turn (also one of the things that makes this deck so great -with the exception of no-landers, most hands are keepable so long as you have a Serum or Opt to find land when needed, or Looting to cycle through excess).


In sequence with spells like Thought Scour, Visions provides a very important function.  Consider the best-case scenario; you cast Serum Visions and the top two cards are Arclight Phoenix.  The easy follow up would be to Scour yourself and ‘bin the birds’.  If they aren’t, but you plan on casting Thought Scour next, it just might be best to put them on the bottom of your library to dig two cards deeper for a chance to find Phoenix.  Though Scour represents some of the most important variance packed into this deck and your ability to leverage that by timing it effectively and setting it up with Scrys will be very beneficial.

After the sequence is begun with Thought Scour and Visions, Looting may be a fine follow-up if your aim is to dig deeper for Phoenixes or bin the ones you’ve already found.  Otherwise, I would think twice before casting it.  The best advice I can offer is to Loot with intention (or out of desperation when it’s necessary).  You don’t want to have to discard valuable resources on accident.

You may be wondering where Opt fits into this plan.  Opt functions almost completely independently from the other cantrips that the deck runs.  It scrys before the draw and only sees one card so casting it does little to affect future cantrips besides providing more opportunities to put something useful in your hand for Looting to discard.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a very useful function no doubt, but, because of its independence, I tend to use Opt most often to either initiate the sequence or find pieces at the end of my opponent’s turn when I have unspent mana.

Some players run Sleight of Hand in this position and I can see why.  Sleight can look at one additional card, which obviously provides some greater selection for us.  The drawback of it being a Sorcery is not worthwhile to me.  I’d rather have an instant-speed opportunity to trigger Thing in the Ice or Young Pyromancer or make use of mana saved for Lightning Bolt, Spell Pierce, etc, when I don’t end up needing them.  Beware; if your goal is to protect a resolved Thing with a Spell Pierce or Dispel, tapping out for Opt may give your opponent the opportunity to respond with their own instant-speed removal.  I would not recommend casting Opt in this situation, however tempting it may be…

I’m sure you were looking for a more clean-cut answer for your sequencing needs.  I’d be happy to provide this, but keep in mind, this hierarchy doesn’t always apply.  These decisions should be made with the game state, your opponent’s deck, and your own resources in mind.

  1. Opt: Begin here to see more cards and provide more information about your own resources when the mana allows.
  2. Serum Visions: Most importantly, be sure you’ve seen as much as you can with Visions’ scry before casting spells like Thought Scour and Faithless Looting to leverage your odds for more Phoenixes.
  3. Thought Scour: If you’re digging deeper for Phoenixes, the obvious target is yourself. It is often acceptable to target you’ve scryed another spell to the top of your deck and will need to draw it to ensure that you will have a third spell to cast.
  4. Faithless Looting: Most often, this will be used to finish the sequence once you’ve had the most opportunities to find your birds.

A card like Manamorphose needs less explanation of its function within this plan.  Often times, the only choice is whether or not you’ll be using it this turn at all, and if you are, it will likely have to come first based on it mana cost.

Crucial Turn Two

Your second turn is often the most important turn when it comes to determining your line.  With Manamorphose, it is very reasonable to be attacking with the deck’s namesake as early as turn two.  In some match-ups, this type of aggression will be necessary, but, in many cases, playing one of the many two-drops that also benefit from spells cast (Thing in the Ice, Young Pyromancer) may be the better option for more damage output over time.  The math is easy when comparing one attacking Phoenix to a Thing in the Ice that can be flipped next turn and attack alongside a bird, but, consider your opening seven, your match-up, and the likelihood that your Thing will be removed before being able to attack.  Most importantly, consider the defensive function of Thing in this case.  Not only will this creature attack for seven, it will also buy you some time by returning opposing threats back to their hand.

With that said, Young Pyromancer and Thing in the Ice will often precede the cantrip sequence listed above.  Not always.  Once again, its subjective.  Not what you wanted to hear, I’m sure…Magic is hard…play Tron if you want it easy ;).

Flex Spot


Speaking of two-drops, this seems like a good time to talk about Young Pryomancer.  I’d consider these two spots in the deck to be flex.  Players have experimented with Pteramander, Monastery Swiftspear, and even Pyromancer Ascension in this position.  I can see the benefit of all of them, however, I think Young Pyromancer contributes to one of this deck’s strengths: attacking on multiple axis.  Cards like Bedlam Reveler fell out of favor in this style, in part because of graveyard hate spells (which are already used against us) that are universally damaging to both Reveler and Phoenix.  What Thing and Crackling Drake provide is an ability to not give a damn about Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, or similar.  For that same reason, Young Pyromancer is more appealing to me than Pyromancer Ascension and Pteramander.  Additionally, gumming up the board provides quite a bit of relevance vs. other ‘fair decks’ that might challenge us on the ground like Humans or Jund and allow us to ‘go wide’ against decks with strong one-to-one removal options.

Flipping a Thing in the Ice with a Pyromancer in play can provide a bit of an awkward moment at times but it is often worthwhile to do so anyways.  Remember that you are able to stack your triggers so Thing flips before Pyromancer’s last token is created.  That extra 1/1 might make the difference in the game!

Flex Spells

Izzet Charm has always been useful as its three modes are all of interest to our deck.  When you aren’t expected to pack any counter magic in game one, being able to Negate an opposing Terminus out of nowhere may just win you the game.

Lightning Axe-types of spells will be necessary to mitigate red removal’s difficulty in dealing with creatures with large butts.  Most importantly is its capacity to deal with opposing Thing in the Ices, Baneslayer Angels, Restoration Angels, or Celestial Colonnades that might plan to get in the way of our flying attackers.

Main Deck Surgical

I’ve cut one Gut Shot to include a Surgical Extraction in my main.  It’s nearly always useful, and when exiling isn’t something we’re in the market for, the ability to see your opponent’s deck and hand with a free spell is just fine.  Sometimes, it’s great to simply pick off a card like Path to Exile from an opposing white deck.

The Biggest Obstacles

As I’ve mentioned previously in this primer, Izzet Phoenix is very much a known commodity in the Modern metagame at this point.  Because of that, players will come packing hate for your plan.  Expect the following…

Rest in Peace / Relic of Progenitus / Leyline of the Void / etc.


Generally speaking, graveyard hate can be a nuisance at best.  Because the deck is called “Izzet Phoenix” rather than “Izzet Thing in the Ice” (sometimes I think this would be a more fitting name), your opponent’s attention may be focused on preventing Arclight Phoenix from doing…”phoenix things”.  If my opponent takes turn two off to cast a Rest in Peace, I’m never too upset.  You know what would be even worse?  If that Rest in Peace were Path to Exile!  Granted, your opponent will very likely be playing both but the point I’m trying to illustrate is that while graveyard hate can reduce the resiliency provided by your Phoenixes’ three spell trigger, it doesn’t actually do anything to destroy the creature when it is simply cast from your hand.  Beyond that, Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake care very little about any of these three.

I’m not saying RIP, Leyline of the Void, or Relic don’t do anything against Izzet Phoenix.  They do, but they are no where near as damning as they can be had we been piloting a deck like Dredge or Storm instead. That said, we don’t need to pack answers to these types of spells in our sideboard.  We certainly could!  The green splash exists…take a look at Ryan Overturf’s take on the deck as an extreme example.

Surgical Extraction

Surgical, on the other hand, is a piece of graveyard hate that I fear quite a bit more than the static alternatives as it has the ability to disrupt the Phoenixes in your entire deck and hand, and is much less predictable.  This can lead to a blow out when you’ve exhausted all of your resources in order to trigger Phoenix at your attack step.  Even though your opponent is tapped out, Surgical Extraction remains a very potent option for them.  There is little you can do about this, but generally speaking, exposing your Phoenixes to similar hate when its not necessary is ill-advised.  This is especially true when you’ve boarded in Dispel or Spell Pierce that could disrupt such actions.

Chalice of the Void

This one presents an obvious problem for our deck as we rely heavily on one-mana spells to function.  Keep in mind that countered spells are still cast.  Often times, preventing us from receiving the effect of our one-mana spells, especially the card drawn, is enough to stop us from doing our thing, but it is quite possible to flip a Thing in the Ice or trigger a Phoenix just by casting three or four spells into Chalice of the Void‘s counter trigger.

We pack Abrade in our sideboard for good reason and Engineered Explosives isn’t a terrible utility knife against this sort of thing, either.

Ensnaring Bridge

My best advice for dealing with Ensnaring Bridge is to always keep it in mind.  Decks that tend to play it don’t often “just happen to have one” (with the exception of Burn decks and some Mardu Pyromancer builds) but, instead, it serves as an integral part of their strategy.  Expect to see Bridge when facing Artifact Prison, Eight Rack, UB Mill, Lantern, and Free-Win Red.  Without an Abrade or Engineered Explosives brought in from the sideboard, there is absolutely no way to beat a resolved Bridge aside from direct damage via Lightning Bolt (don’t count on this unless you’ve got your opponent down to <3).  If you don’t find your answers to Bridge, hold up mana for Ceremonious Rejection, Spell Pierce, or Dispel (for Whir of Invention) at all costs.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

There are lots of good targets for your Lightning Bolt in the humans match-up but always remember how much of a pain in the side Thalia can be.  I like Gut Shot against any deck that is running Thalia but, especially vs. Humans, this type of spell has diminishing returns as lords are cast to grow their toughness beyond one point.  Ross Meriam recommends shaving some number of cantrips vs this card and Damping Sphere to lessen the effect of the tax.

Storm Crow

This pesky 1/2 flier is the perfect chump blocker to Fog a single attacking Arclight Phoenix straight into eternal meme-dom.  Bring in Beacon Bolt to kill this thing straight to hell whenever you have the opportunity to do so or it WILL get in the way of your attack and functionally gain three life for your opponent at the cost of just two mana.

As they say, “some Storm Crows never blow over”.


You’ll see that we’ve got a toolbox that provides from the most likely hurdles in the current metagame and our piles of draw spells in the main deck will help us to see them.  I’ve been incredibly happy with Dragon’s Claw, as it Burn and Mono Red Phoenix continue to see loads of play.  Also, Beacon Bolt has been very impressive.  Its nice to have a situational removal spell (purely because of its steep cost – I realize it can deal with most creatures) that can be pitched to Faithless Looting when it is not needed.  Often times, I find myself making the tough decision to discard Lightning Axe knowing that I just might miss them dearly if my opponent is able to resolve Lyra Dawnbringer later on.

The one card that I am on the fence about at this point is Engineered Explosives.  I originally included it as a bit of a catch-all answer for the decks in the meta I am not so prepared to face but I haven’t found myself boarding it in in many situations.  Ultimately, I’ve left it in, as the interaction with Manamorphose to provide mana beyond blue and red allows for creative ways to deal with cards like Ensnaring Bridge that typically would be a major roadblock (if I can’t find Abrade in time).

This sideboarding guide is based off of Ross Merriam’s guide (originally posted in December on StarCityGames.com) but includes changes to reflect my 75 and some slight differences in preference when boarding.  I’ve chosen to focus on the eight most represented decks in the meta (according to MTG Goldfish) circa February 2019.

Meta-share based on tournament finishes and MTGO League 5-0 results.

Vs. Dredge (5.44% of results)

-2 Gut Shot
-2 Lightning Axe
-1 Crackling Drake

+1 Surgical Extraction
+2 Anger of the Gods
+2 Spell Pierce

Dredge packs a lot of pesky creatures that can get in the way of your fliers (Narcomoeba, Stinkweed Imp) so game one can be tough if you can’t connect before the board gets gummed up.  Thing in the Ice will be helpful here, and should be pretty safe from removal assuming your opponent is packing just two Conflagrates in the main.  You’ll be happy to have the maindecked Surgical here as it should buy some crucial time.  Post-board looks even better for us as we’ll add three more exile spells and Spell Pierces to catch early Cathartic Reuinon or, even better, Conflagrate.

Vs. Izzet Phoenix (5.21%)

-2 Gut Shot
-2 Young Pyromancer
-1 Thought Scour

+1 Surgical Extraction
+2 Spell Pierce
+1 Dispel
+1 Beacon Bolt

Young Pyromancer gets the axe here for obvious reasons.  We’ll opt for counter magic to protect our threats from our opponent as the path to victory often involves Thing in the Ice or Crackling Drake in this scenario.

I’ve seen people bring in Anger of the Gods in the mirror.  I’m not a big fan of this plan.  Though Anger might be perfectly timed against three resolved Phoenixes, its more often too late to matter or just a dead card against an army of four-toughness Drakes and Horrors.

Vs. Grixis Death’s Shadow (4.98%)

-1 Surgical Extraction
-2 Gut Shot
-1 Izzet Charm

+1 Beacon Bolt
+1 Blood Moon
+1 Dispel
+1 Engineered Explosives

Though the Surgical may provide some nice Snapcaster Mage blow-outs in game one, I’m not terribly excited about keeping it in for the second round.  Instead, we’ll find a Beacon Bolt to give us more opportunities to take down a Gurmag Angler or Tasigur when needed, a Dispel to catch opposing removal, Temur Battle Rage, and Stubborn Denials, and a single Blood Moon which might just be enough to punish your opponent’s very greedy mana base.  GDS typically plays just one basic Swamp and one basic Island.  If your opponent doesn’t think to find them early, they’ll have a very difficult time finding access to U and B once Moon is resolved.

Chip damage from Phoenix may just fuel your opponent’s Death’s Shadows and result in your own demise, so holding back and setting up for a single big attack may be more effective.  If you can manage to keep your Thing in the Ice alive long enough to flip, this may be the best way to do so.

You’ll be happy to have Young Pyromancer here to provide chump blockers for your opponent’s ground creatures so long as you stay poised to deal with a Temur Battle Rage.  Also, an Engineered Explosives set to one might provide some security from Shadow, especially since these decks are unlikely to be bringing artifact hate in against you game two.

Vs. Burn (3.94%)

-2 Gut Shot
-1 Surgical Extraction
-2 Young Pyromancer
-2 Lightning Axe

+2 Dragon’s Claw
+2 Spell Pierce
+1 Dispel
+2 Abrade

This is a tough match-up but Dragon’s Claw makes it considerably better as it provides a rare opportunity for some lifegain in Izzet colors.  Sometimes Thing in the Ice reads as ‘target opponent’ discards two Lightning Bolts and that might just make it worth playing early at risk of its own doom.  If your opponent attacks with a creature that could be easily blocked by a 0/4, expect the remaining damage to be dealt post combat by a Searing Blaze or Bolt.  In that case, it might be wise NOT to block so that you can force your opponent to use two spells on your Thing.  Eight toughness will be very difficult for them to deal with so removing this creature before it flips will be their priority.  Eidolon of the Great Revel is trouble for us so maintain removal options to deal with this or you’ll be functionally locked out of the game.

Vs. Tron (3.01%)

-2 Gut Shot
-1 Surgical Extraction
-2 Lightning Axe
-1 Lightning Bolt

+2 Blood Moon
+1 Ceremonious Rejection
+2 Spell Pierce
+1 Abrade

Gotta go fast.  Tron will inevitably find a way to cast something awful no matter how much you attack their lands or counter their threats.  Our fast starts should be enough to take our opponent down before they find enough mana to cast Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.  A resolved Karn will not likely be enough to take over the game but it certainly can if we are slow to flip Thing in the Ice and attack.  Spell Pierce may be enough to Time Walk your opponent when they’ve assembled Tron and attempt to cast their first payoff spell.  Once another land is added to the mix, things get considerably more challenging.

Vs. Bant Spirits (3.01%)

-1 Surgical Extraction
-2 Young Pyromancer
-2 Thought Scour

+2 Anger of the Gods
+2 Abrade
+1 Dispel

Reflector Mage can be a real nightmare for us in this match-up, but, generally speaking, we should be able to disassemble our opponent’s board presence with relative ease.  Similar to the match-up against Humans, Thing in the Ice can be very effective if it can dodge Reflector Mage or Path to Exile long enough to flip.  When it does, be sure that you’ve dealt with your opponent’s Aether Vials using Abrade or remain poised to pick off their spirits when the opportunity arises with instant speed Drogskol Captain in mind.

Vs. Amulet Titan (2.55%)

-1 Surgical Extractin
-2 Gut Shot
-2 Young Pyromancer
-2 Lightning Axe

+2 Blood Moon
+1 Dispel
+2 Abrade
+1 Beacon Bolt
+1 Spell Pierce

We won’t find many opportunities to deal with a resolved Primeval Titan, so the best plan is to either race it or slow your opponent drastically with Blood Moon.  In some cases, Thing in the Ice might be used defensively to buy a turn against Amulet Titan players so long as you can trigger is flip clause when Primeval Titan is already declared as an attacker.  Titan decks tend to play almost no removal in the main but be prepared for Path to Exile in game two-three.  Dispel comes in here to deal with any one of the opponent’s pacts but is especially important for dealing with a Summoner’s Pact.

Four-Color Prison (2.55%)

-1 Surgical Extraction
-2 Gut Shot
-2 Young Pyromancer
-2 Lightning Bolt

+1 Dispel
+2 Abrade
+1 Engineered Explosives
+1 Ceremonious Rejection
+2 Spell Pierce

Four-Color Prison plays two of the previously mentioned problem cards in Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge.  With a grand total of four copies of each of these and four Whir of Invention to find Bridge, the number of answers that we’ve packed seems a bit underwhelming.  Go fast and hope for the best while holding up mana for disruptive spells like Pierce or Rejection for these roadblocks.

It seems odd to leave in Lightning Axe in this match-up but you absolutely need an answer to Sai, Master Thopterist or you are just dead.  Unfortunately, Bolt won’t do it and attacking through an army of Thopters is hell unless you can flip Thing to bounce them for a moment.