It has been a long time since I decided to play in a paper tournament. Between being extremely busy and the pandemic, finding the right time for it was rather difficult. However, the return to a Pro Tour system that Wizards of the Coast implemented a few months ago did leave me excited to take another crack at it. There was a Regional Championship Qualifier (RCQ) fairly close to my home and the format would be Pioneer. I have played Pioneer in the past and generally enjoy it, but I haven’t played it in almost a year, so I knew that I had a lot of learning to do.
I settled on Izzet Phoenix early and cracked right into testing. After a few weeks, the day of the RCQ arrived and I emerged victorious. It was really nice to see that I could still keep up in paper events and have success in non-Legacy formats. Today, I want to go through some thoughts about the deck: what I expected, my reasoning for the choices I made and discuss strategy and planning for a few matchups. In general, I’m not a big fan of tournament reports and this was admittedly a small event, only being five rounds with a cut to Top 8, so I’ll only briefly touch on the event itself.
Without further adieu, let’s jump right in.
Based on a combination of MTGGoldfish data and my own testing experiences, it seemed as if the big decks in the format were Mono-Green, Rakdos Midrange, Izzet Phoenix, Abzan Greesefang and UW Control. In addition, some combination of Humans, Spirits, Boros Heroic, Rakdos Sacrifice and Lotus Field seemed like they should be on my mind. Mono-Red was the one deck that consistently appeared at the top of the Goldfish data, but I very rarely played against it, so it left me a bit unsure if I should find a way to specifically respect the deck.
Beyond preparing for expected archetypes, part of my preparation was understanding specifically what these decks were doing to counteract Phoenix. I wanted to make sure I built up some knowledge about the commonly played Phoenix hate cards and my opponents’ general strategies in the post-board games against Phoenix. Unlicensed Hearse was one of the top cards on my mind and I knew there would be a variety of other options that I should expect.
After a few weeks of testing, here is where I ended up:
Pioneer Izzet Phoenix by Rich Cali
While there are a lot of stock inclusions here, there are also some finer details that I spent a decent amount of time deciding on. In the end, I settled on the leanest version of the deck I could, trying to play as many of the key pieces as I could rather than leaning in on different one-ofs. Since this deck sees so many cards, I understand the appeal of dividing up your spells, but overall I wanted to maximize this deck’s ability to execute its plan as frequently as possible. I’m going to take some time to go over my reasoning now.
Ledger Shredder vs. Thing in the Ice
This has become a bit of a conversation piece in the format. I do understand the perspective of those who suggest Thing is a better inclusion. It’s a very powerful card which is extremely potent against a lot of different decks. It also promotes a significantly more aggressive game plan, allowing you to end games far more quickly. My friend framed it to me as Shredder is better for the deck overall, but Thing is better in the format, and I’m not necessarily denying that.
However, I do think that’s underselling Shredder, since a flying threat with a lot of toughness that fills up the graveyard is a very real card in Pioneer. I think enough has been said about Shredder at this point in Magic that I don’t need to rehash the topic, but it really is the perfect card for this archetype. For me, I think you’d have to expect a fairly specific metagame to justify fully cutting Shredder for Thing (perhaps one heavy on Mono-Green, Humans and Greasefang), but I don’t think you’ll ever go wrong just sticking with four Shredders. I did start out with some Things in the main deck in addition to four Shredder, which I can definitely get behind, but I think the leaner version is overall more effective.
2 Chart a Course, 0 Strategic Planning
This is the one spot where I admit I did not do my due diligence. I never really considered Strategic Planning, despite the fact that it is fairly effective at fueling the delve cards. To me, these cards are fairly similar in power since they’re both kind of clunky but Chart is a bit more important since this deck does need a certain number of ways to discard Phoenixes that you draw. I’m willing to be convinced that Planning is worth including, especially since this list is playing three Lightning Axes as ways to discard Phoenixes, but I think I still like Chart a bit more.
1 Spikefield Hazard, 1 Silundi Vision, 0 Sea Gate Restoration, 0 Shatterskull Smashing
These slots were the most difficult to figure out because there are not only a lot of options, but figuring out the best way to conceptualize the deck building space was a challenge. To me, the question came down to this: do I want two lands that can be spells in a pinch, or do I want two spells that can be lands in a pinch? Both Sea Gate Restoration and Shatterskull Smashing are untapped lands throughout the game, but the spell side of the cards are lacking, in my opinion. I decided that I wanted to prioritize having cheap, castable spells at the cost of occasionally drawing ETB tapped lands. Silundi Vision in particular has consistently been an overperformer for me, since it not only digs really well for Treasure Cruise, but can help you find key disruptive pieces in post-board games.
I tried other options, such as Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance over Spikefield Hazard, but I think the synergy with Pieces of the Puzzle is a bit too strong. It’s not uncommon to cast Pieces of the Puzzle when you are missing a fourth land in hand, and being able to find take of the double-faced cards and actually find a land off of Pieces seemed important to me. With that synergy in mind, Sea Gate Restoration/Shatterskull Smashing are better, since they allow you to hit an untapped land and keep casting spells. I don’t think either choice is necessarily wrong, but I still like having the cheaper spells overall.
2 Spell Pierce, 0 Izzet Charm
I understand the appeal of Izzet Charm, since it does a little bit of everything this deck is looking for. However, I found that paying two mana for either of the interactive effects was not only too slow, but trivially easy for opponents to play around. I know that this leaves you with the ability to loot and use your mana, but in my experience, that requires you to already have a Phoenix in hand lest you risk throwing away a card. Conversely, I was consistently impressed with Spell Pierce. It’s cheap enough to represent throughout the game, which matters on turns when you’re going to bring back Phoenixes, and overall, it’s a fairly effective card in the format.
4 Fiery Impulse
There are a lot of options you can play here and I never really considered going lower than three Impulse. It’s very efficient and being an instant is pretty relevant. A lot of lists split three Impulse/one Strangle, but with cards like Silundi Vision and Spell Pierce, I found myself wanting to hold up mana a bit more often, so I liked learning into four Impulse
3 Lightning Axe
There are certainly a lot of spots where Axe is not the best, but it’s a really cheap enabler that kills a lot of the key threats in the format. I understand why people trim on this card because sometimes the cost of discarding is really problematic, but I think the effect is both efficient and powerful enough to justify including as many as is realistically possible.
2 Jace, 1 Young Pyromancer, 0 Saheeli, 0 Crackling Drake
Jace has been a MVP for me (and was a crucial part of my RCQ success). It’s an excellent way to sidestep a lot of hate people play with Phoenix and not a ton of decks have clean ways to remove it. It is a bit awkward at times if you have taken an aggressive approach and then draw Jace rather than another threat that could pressure their life total, but overall it fits a lot of post-board plans neatly. Initially, Crackling Drake was the most appealing sideboard threat for me, but the more I played with it, the more awkward I found a four-mana creature to be, even if it generated value. Young Pyromancer does get caught in the crossfire if opponents leave in Fatal Push but for the most part, I think a cheaper threat that immediately impacts the board is better than Saheeli, but I’m not 100 percent convinced about that.
3 Abrade, 1 Lava Coil, 0 Anger of the Gods
There are so many red removal options that it’s difficult to find the right ones to play. I wanted to lean in heavily on Abrade because I found that it had enough overlap between a variety of problematic cards that Phoenix can play against that it was worth playing three copies. Specifically, it filled the gap really nicely against Rakdos Midrange, since it answers most of their key threats and Unlicensed Hearse. It is fairly slow though, which means that it’s not a very effective card against Mono-Green and can be awkward against Humans (although it does kill Portable Hole, so that’s important to keep in mind). Still, I thought it was the best inclusion overall for my sideboard plan.
Lava Coil is a good card, especially against Old-Growth Troll, but a two-mana sorcery one-for-one is a bit difficult to justify playing too many copies of. I honestly couldn’t really think of why I would really want Anger of the Gods. I know there are some spots where it will shine, but it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in those matchups.
3 Disdainful Stroke, 2 Mystical Dispute, 1 Aether Gust
Daryl Ayers made a Twitter post that he found Disdainful Stroke to be the best counterspell the deck has, which inspired me to adjust some numbers around. I have found Stoke to be both versatile and powerful (despite the fact that I only brought it in once in the RCQ). I started on more Gusts because Mono-Green was the number one deck I wanted to address, but between adding more Strokes and playing Thing in the Ice in the board, I thought I could trim Gust down to a single copy since I had enough impactful cards to bring in for the matchup. The Strokes helped clean up my sideboard plans in a lot of matchups and made it a lot easier to map out plans.
As for Mystical Dispute, while I do find it to be one of the best sideboard cards in the format, since I was already playing two Spell Pierces, it began to feel too easy for opponents to play around the amount of soft permission I had. I still think the card is amazing, and will probably add more copies at some point in the future, but for now I liked how two copies felt.
2 Thing in the Ice
While I don’t personally like the idea of playing Thing over Shredder in the deck (right now, at least), Thing is still an incredible card and by far the best card to play against Mono-Green. There are a lot of other contexts where it shines, as well, such as potentially saving you from an army of Angels against Abzan Greesefang, so I was pretty sure I didn’t want to play fewer than two copies.
As I said, I don’t think a full tournament report is appropriate here (and I’m not a big fan of reports, in general), but there were some interesting points to note. For starters, here’s how the event went:
- Rakdos Midrange – Win (2-0)
- Rakdos Sacrifice – Loss (1-2)
- Abzan Greesefang – Win (2-1)
- Abzan Greesefang – Win (2-1)
- Rakdos Midrange – Win (2-0)
- Dimir Control – Win (2-0)
- Rakdos Sacrifice – Win (2-0)
The Rakdos sacrifice matchup is tricky and can be difficult to know how to approach. They revealed Jegantha and kept a weak hand in the first game, which I overcame with ease, but then did not reveal Jegantha Game 2, which led me to suspect Leyline of the Void, which proved to be correct. I ended up siding out three Phoenixes for Game 3, drew my single copy and ended the game with them at one life and if I had Phoenix to draw towards, I would have a chance at winning. It’s difficult to know the best way to play against Leyline, but it’s not nearly as bad as it may seem if you prepare for it. In the Finals rematch, I was prepared for it, adjusted how I sideboarded (to my recommended approach that I discuss later) and punished my opponent for tripping up on lands with Jace, Wielder of Mysteries.
I find Abzan Greasefang to be a really close matchup. If you mulligan too low for removal, they can just beat you in a fair game. If you keep a hand that’s proactive but lacking in disruption, you might just find yourself dead on turn three. Overall, I think I got pretty fortunate in both of those matches. I had to survive against a resolved Parhelion putting me to four, which I was able to do with some 3/5 Ledger Shredders and some Phoenixes. This is certainly a matchup where Thing in the Ice would be better since it actually gives you the ability to fully stabilize the board even if they can put together their combo, so that’s worth noting.
Finally, playing against Dimir Control in the Top 4 was interesting for me. Since I was essentially learning the format from scratch, I don’t have the same instinct and knowledge of card choices that I would if I was playing Legacy. To overcome this during testing, I always looked up decks on MTGGoldfish to familiarize myself with the commonly played cards. I couldn’t do that mid-event and Dimir Control is not a popular deck so I was mostly guessing what I’d be playing against. For the most part, I took a macro-level approach and spent time enacting a plan that would be tough for removal/counter decks to deal with by using Phoenixes to grind them down. At some point, I was ahead enough where I had to consider what might beat me and the first card that came to mind was Extinction Event to remove my Phoenix and Shredder. I played around it by holding up Fiery Impulse and lo and behold, it played out as expected. The rest of the match was fairly straightforward and they tripped up too much against my plan.
There’s going to be a noticeable trend of cutting the Trespass/Iteration combination in a lot of these matchups, which is for different reasons in each matchup. While the combo is fairly effective here and generally one of the things you will need to work through in Game 1, post-board you bring in so much disruption that you don’t spend as much time trying to set it up. This sideboard plan was heavily influenced on Day 1 of testing, when my friend Matt Voltz (Voltzwagon on Magic Online) suggested bringing out the most expensive cards that don’t impact the board for interaction, which is extremely clean.
Pieces is not a bad card, everything being said, but not only is it a bit clunky, but it too often plays into their curve of Karn > Tormod’s Crypt, so trimming on them makes perfect sense. Axe might look like an alright card in the matchup, but it doesn’t really kill that much for a good profit and using it on an Elf is not a good strategy, so I like trimming those. Their deck is really scary, so this matchup can really go either way even after bringing in a bunch of good cards, but overall I think this is a solid approach to sideboard and fits in the plan of trying to prevent them from going over the top.
In general, this is a grindy, close matchup. In general, they are the aggressor since your late-game plan will go over the top of them. With that in mind, it’s important to try to avoid not falling behind early and trying to keep pace with them.
Graveyard Trespasser will take care of your Phoenixes if you put them in the graveyard too early, so be mindful of that. I generally like playing Ledger Shredder somewhat aggressively on turn two because it may force them to spend some time interacting with it, thus stopping them from developing their board, giving you much needed setup time. Post-board, you have to be aware of Unlicensed Hearse and Go Blank, which make your graveyard synergies awkward. They’re not terrible to play through, but can make things awkward. Jace is excellent in this matchup and one of the key cards you’re looking for, so if you draw it, try to keep the board as clear as you can.
The full sideboard plan depends on whether or not you see Leyline of the Void from them. It’s really easy for them to nickel and dime you out of the game and if you don’t have removal for Mayhem Devil, you won’t really be able to get anything going.
That being said, they don’t have much meaningful disruption for your Trespass combo in the first game, so working towards that is the best approach. In some ways, Game 2 gets more difficult because you have to play around Leyline. In others, it becomes easier since you will have Abrade to deal with their Witch’s Oven (as well as Mayhem Devil), which can go a long way towards keeping them from nickel and diming you. You could consider siding out all of the Phoenixes and bringing in Thing in the Ice to more completely sidestep Leyline, and I think that’s reasonable. However, they will have Fatal Push and Claim the Firstborn (combined with sacrifice outlets) to make Thing pretty awkward, so I think I prefer Phoenix.
In general, it’s more important to survive than it is to enact your plan, so try to be as reactive as possible. As I said, this is a close matchup and despite having a decent amount of removal, they can certainly grind through what you’re doing.
That being said, it’s not a very complicated matchup. The biggest decision points come early where you will often need to make some risk assessments about whether to develop your plan or play reactively. If you can afford to play defensively, it’s pretty much a requirement, but if not, you may just have to hope for the best and hope they whiff on their combo while you set up a Shredder.
Kyle Boggemes wrote an article about Phoenix where he said that you will feel behind in the first game for most of the game until you set up a Trespass combo turn, which is pretty accurate. If you can get some Phoenixes in play early enough, you can do some good work, but it’s not an easy task. Post-board things are quite a bit better since you get to cut all of your dead removal spells. Rest in Peace is still a problem but it’s not impossible to play through. It will be a bit tricky to find the right spot to cast your spells, but in general look for the moments where they’re going to try to resolve a key card, such as on their Memory Deluge turn, so if they have to interact with you, it will set them back.
I think a lot of the flex spots I talked about in the deck can be moved around based on what you expect. While I did have expectations, I mostly tried to build the best version of the deck I could, rather than fine-tune it for any one archetype, so this list might not be optimal depending on the metagame. I do think Phoenix is a good choice, but be aware that people can bring some serious hate to the table which can make your life difficult. I did play through a decent amount of hate cards to reasonable success though, so it is certainly possible to fight through those cards and strategies.