Modern’s Sky Isn’t Falling

In Modern, Arclight Phoenix is the talk of the town at the moment. It has spawned an archetype that has gone from niche to dominant over the last five or six months, and is currently flying high as the scourge of Modern. Some people anticipated this (my arms are quite sore at the moment from trying to simultaneously pat myself on the back while also tooting my own horn), and now it has happened—Izzet Phoenix is the boogeyman of Modern, with a 21% share of the Day 2 decks appearing at MF Bilbao, MF Tampa Bay, and SCG Philadelphia.

Izzet Phoenix

Guillaume Matignon, 1st place at MF Bilbao 2019

3 Island
2 Mountain
2 Steam Vents
1 Sulfur Falls
4 Spirebluff Canal
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Polluted Delta
4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror
4 Arclight Phoenix
2 Crackling Drake
1 Echoing Truth
4 Faithless Looting
1 Gut Shot
1 Izzet Charm
1 Lightning Axe
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Manamorphose
2 Pyromancer Ascension
4 Serum Visions
2 Surgical Extraction
4 Thought Scour
4 Opt

1 Abrade
1 Anger of the Gods
2 Blood Moon
1 Ceremonious Rejection
2 Dispel
2 Dragon's Claw
1 Flame Slash
1 Hurkyl's Recall
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Ravenous Trap
1 Shatterstorm
1 Spell Pierce

As you might expect in situations like this, there is no shortage of people clamoring for a ban.

This is just how things go in situations like this—the Magic community is filled with an incredibly diverse array of opinions and voices, to put it diplomatically, and you can be sure that there’s always going to be someone who finds a way to complain about anything and everything. In an excellent recent article, Josh Silvestri unpacked a lot of what’s wrong with this kind of negative mentality and how to better approach situations like these, and there are useful takeaways in that article for everyone.

Let’s dial down on Modern, however, and the current problems the format faces. How problematic is Arclight Phoenix, and what kind of action—if any—needs to be taken?

The Golden Age of Modern

I’ve maintained for quite some time that Modern is in a golden age. In my view, 2018 was the best year Modern has ever seen, with a huge array of extremely varied decks, interesting and engaging decision points, and the opportunity for players to play “whatever they want”. Reasonably speaking, there aren’t clearer markers for the health of a format.

Early last year, doomsayers predicted the death of the format with the unbanning of Jace and Bloodbraid Elf, and neither (least of all BBE) turned the format upside down. Jace found a spot in revitalized White-Blue Control lists, but that may have more to do with Teferi than anything else, in all honesty. After a brief but turbulent period after the unbannings, the format corrected itself.

We’ve seen decks achieve levels of undesired dominance within the last twelve months, only to be slowly but surely eclipsed as canny players tweaked and tuned their lists to beat out whichever “oppressive” strategy was at the top of the heap. For a while it was Grixis Death’s Shadow, then other decks like 5-Color Humans and Hardened Scales all had periods of “unhealthy” dominance. Sure enough, however, the fortunes of these decks eventually waned as Modern’s magnificent self-correction engines ground into gear.

What does this mean? If the patterns we’ve seen in Modern over the last year or more continue to bear out, then Arclight Phoenix will go the way of Death’s Shadow, Noble Hierarch, and Arcbound Worker, and settle into its place in the Modern format. There’s not an overwhelming amount of evidence that this won’t be the case, either—people just love to claim the sky is falling, when, in fact, it may be the exact opposite.

Cooler Heads Prevailing

For all the Chicken Lickens decrying Modern as a broken, dead format, there are some more measured and thoughtful responses that seem to hold a lot more water. The highlight of these responses was Corbin Hosler’s Twitter thread, posted after a weekend working at MF Tampa Bay.

In this thread, Hosler agrees that the Phoenix deck is dominant, but—critically—is also misunderstood. He talks about its flexibility and its capacity to pivot around graveyard hate, comparing it to Splinter Twin decks of yore and their ability to switch gears from proactive to reactive. He also talks about its broken starts, its consistency (thanks to its cantrips), and the fact that it can “free roll” its win conditions.

All this is true, but none of it, by any reasonable metric, makes it unfairly dominant. It’s powerful, sure, and it’s putting up worryingly high numbers, but how much of that is because of unanswerable dominance, and how much of it is because people haven’t properly figured out how to beat it?

To have a deck like Phoenix rule the roost for not even a month and decide Modern is doomed is a little presumptive at best and willfully disingenuous at worst. As Hosler points out, “If you want to beat it, your answers need to be just as flexible [as Izzet Phoenix].” He even goes to point out some of the new technology that is emerging to fight off the Phoenix menace. Already, Modern’s self-correcting nature is swinging into action.

Tuning Your List

There are a few cards that are starting to see play in the starting 60s of top-tier Modern decks to contest Izzet Phoenix. I’m not talking about main deck Surgical Extraction—I’m talking about proactive threats that do a lot of splash damage to strategies like the Phoenix deck. For example, Anafenza, the Foremost getting out and about in 5-Color Humans.

5-Color Humans

krecsiedziwko, 5-0 in a Modern League

1 Plains
1 Island
4 Unclaimed Territory
4 Ancient Ziggurat
1 Seachrome Coast
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Horizon Canopy
2 Anafenza, the Foremost
4 Champion of the Parish
3 Kitesail Freebooter
4 Mantis Rider
4 Meddling Mage
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Phantasmal Image
4 Reflector Mage
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Thalia's Lieutenant
4 AEther Vial

3 Auriok Champion
2 Chalice of the Void
2 Damping Sphere
3 Deputy of Detention
1 Dismember
1 Gaddock Teeg
1 Kambal, Consul of Allocation
2 Knight of Autumn

This is a perfect example of adapting your deck to tussle with the format’s dominant strategy without making compromises to your list’s overall strategy. Humans is all about playing efficient, disruptive creatures that benefit from tribal synergy, and Anafenza is exactly that. In any other matchup, she hits hard and beefs up your (non-Mantis Rider) creatures, but against Phoenix she makes Faithless Looting look very silly.

In a similar vein, Black-Green Rock strategies are poised to make a comeback with some of the options available to them. Not only is the Rock’s interaction and disruption already a cut above the rest, this deck can get excellent mileage out of another proactive, disruptive threat.

The Rock

Daniel Toledo, 9th at MF Bilbao 2019

1 Forest
3 Swamp
1 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Watery Grave
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
2 Overgrown Tomb
1 Marsh Flats
3 Blooming Marsh
1 Hissing Quagmire
2 Treetop Village
4 Verdant Catacombs
3 Field of Ruin
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Scavenging Ooze
2 Tireless Tracker
4 Dark Confidant
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
4 Assassin's Trophy
2 Collective Brutality
4 Fatal Push
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Liliana of the Veil
1 Maelstrom Pulse
3 Thoughtseize

1 Creeping Corrosion
1 Damnation
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Fulminator Mage
1 Grafdigger's Cage
1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
1 Languish
1 Liliana, the Last Hope
1 Nihil Spellbomb
3 Surgical Extraction
2 Unmoored Ego

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is another incredible example of what changes you should be looking to make to your deck to improve your Phoenix matchup—still without making severe compromises. Kalitas is an excellent, scalable threat that also pulls real weight against aggressive decks (especially Burn) thanks to lifelink and an ability to end games on its own. The fact that it hoses Izzet Phoenix is just gravy, but not a great reason to find room for it in the first place.

The examples don’t stop here. White-Blue Control can (and should) play more exile or tuck effects: Path to Exile, Condemn, even Settle the Wreckage. Burn can maximize on Eidolon of the Great Revel. Chord of Calling decks can include Ethersworn Canonist or Eidolon of Rhetoric. Chalice of the Void decks are in a great position to have a real impact on Modern right now.

The point is, it’s not game over for non-Phoenix decks, and the challenge presented by the current dominance of Arclight Phoenix is better seen as an invitation to innovate.

A Capital Mistake

Finally, I want to once again share an important quotation made by Sherlock Holmes in A.C. Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

We’ve all been guilty of this capital mistake at one point or another. But you are definitely guilty of this if you are calling for the ban of Arclight Phoenix due to your theories about it being unfairly dominant. The simple fact of the matter is this: you don’t have sufficient data. No one does. With the release of Modern Horizons coming ever closer, Modern is preparing for the biggest shake-up the format has ever seen.

Arclight Phoenix may end up being an embarrassingly bad card once Modern Horizons is released. Anything from a reprint of Containment Priest to some new Rule of Law-esque card may render the archetype unplayable. Alternatively, so many new archetypes and strategies may be boosted or even spawned by this new set of cards that Izzet Phoenix ends up lost in the shuffle.

The sky isn’t falling in Modern. Even if it were, and even if Izzet Phoenix was an unacceptably dominant deck, we have such a huge unknown coming down the pipeline in Modern Horizons that it’s pretty short-sighted to be eulogizing Modern in the weeks before Horizons arrives. Instead, put your energy into contesting the format as it stands because after the 14th of June, all bets are off.


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