If you've been playing or paying attention to competitive Magic at all since Guilds of Ravnica was released, you know that Arclight Phoenix has risen to become the most important card in the set. It quickly proved itself as a Standard staple and spawned a deck built around it, but the bigger story has been its ascension to one of Modern's premier strategies. Last weekend the Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck won Grand Prix Oakland in its biggest finish yet, and is now in position to become an even bigger presence in Modern as it converts more players.
With its place in Standard and Modern secured, the next format for Arclight Phoenix to burn is Legacy. In theory, a format like Legacy with an even bigger cardpool than Modern should have a ton of tools to support Arclight Phoenix. There are already players working on the project – I find it pretty cool that last Sunday while Arclight Phoenix was on its way towards winning the Grand Prix, it also earned its best finish yet in Legacy, reaching the Top 8 of the Magic Online Legacy Challenge for the first time.
This deck first appeared around three weeks ago after the same pilot WhiteFaces put up a 5-0 league finish, followed by another a week later. A top 32 Challenge finish last week was then followed up with a Top 8 this week – the sky's the limit for what's to come next.
The idea behind the deck is to use Buried Alive to put three Arclight Phoenix in the graveyard, together which represent nine damage a turn and a kill within a few turns. Mix in some spells to trigger Arclight Phoenix – like Dark Ritual to speed things up to as early as turn one – and winning becomes pretty elementary. The deck is built very much in the mold of a combo deck, and in fact is actually quite similar to Storm in construction and uses essentially an identical spell base of blue card selection and black discard.
Cabal Therapy excels in the deck – it's a great spell for enabling Arclight Phoenix, which also makes great sacrificial fodder. The discard is also important to put Arclight Phoenix in the graveyard – this deck doesn't play Faithless Looting or any other looting effects, so the discard spells are the main way to get it into the graveyard beyond Buried Alive. Cabal Therapy is particularly well-suited for the job because it hits even multiple copies at once. The deck turns to Young Pyromancer as an alternate win-condition for when Arclight Phoenix needs help or is hosed by cards like Surgical Extraction, and it makes Cabal Therapy even better.
This deck doesn't play Force of Will or other Counterspells beyond a couple Daze, so the discard is quite important for slowing down the opponent and buying time to win the game. This deck is built like a combo deck but it doesn't win immediately like a true combo deck and takes a couple turns to close out the opponent, so having access to discard – especially the multiple discard of Cabal Therapy – is crucial. The deck is quite similar to Dredge in that it puts together a clock that is difficult to meaningfully interact with and will inevitably win the game within a few turns but is susceptible to other decks going over the top with their own plan. Having access to the free discard of Cabal Therapy that can be enabled by free creatures gives the deck ability to consistently put a stop to what the opponent is doing. Playing against Dredge means not only dealing with their creatures for planning for having your hand ripped apart by Cabal Therapy, and I imagine playing against this deck will feel similar.
The deck uses a very strong and proven core of cards, so it's no stretch to use them to enable Arclight Phoenix. It's appealing because it doesn't make any deckbuilding sacrifices beyond including the main combo piece of Buried Alive. Arclight Phoenix has plenty of utility without Buried Alive because it can be enabled by other cards, or simply cast. The deck also has a robust back-up plan in Young Pyromancer, especially when that comes with its own miniature combo with Cabal Therapy dismantling the opponent's hand. With multiple angles of attack, the deck is more resilient to hosers than something like Storm, but it does make sacrifices in giving up raw power and ability to truly go off and win the game in one turn.
What's exciting is that the deck is still a work in progress and has plenty of room to improve. One new addition since earlier iterations of the deck is Bedlam Reveler, which makes sense in a deck with so many spells, and it's also a nice discard outlet for Arclight Phoenix. Another discard outlet is Liliana of the Veil, which I imagine is included because it's a great alternative play with Dark Ritual and can be a backup condition. Earlier versions of the deck included Liliana, the Last Hope too, but it doesn't seem quite synergistic enough. There are plenty of more possibilities, and in time they will reveal themselves.
Seeing Arclight Phoenix succeed in Legacy made me very curious who else in the world might be working on it, so I set out looking to see if it had posted results anywhere else since October. My search yielded one very intriguing deck, a Rakdos Reanimator deck re-tooled to include the Buried Alive and Arclight Phoenix combo.
The Arclight Phoenix and Buried Alive engine is appealing here because Buried Alive comes with added utility in a true Reanimator deck. Buried Alive sets up reanimation spells as an expensive Entomb, which is an alternative line of play the Grixis deck lacked. Finding Griselbrand with Buried Alive to set up Reanimate is the real deal, and sometimes will just be better than getting Arclight Phoenix. As far as Arclight Phoenix, it has far more support in this deck than in the blue version. For one, the deck has Faithless Looting, but it's also incredibly effective with free spell Unmask contributing towards the three count.
Arclight Phoenix adds another element to the reanimator deck, but I also see it working pretty well alongside Griselbrand. Reanimating Griselbrand and drawing many cards is a good way to win the game, usually because it also means drawing a ton of discard and dismantling the opponent's hand. Still, just passing and having to win over the next few turns attacking with Griselbrand isn't ideal. Arclight Phoenix helps speed up the clock and after Griselbrand draws seven or 14 cards it seems likely the deck can enable some Arclight Phoenix to attack that turn, or at the very least can set up multiple coming back the next turn. I could see this being effective against disruption like Karakas, Pithing Needle and Swords to Plowshares, and will be really great for taking down planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which can give the strategy problems.
Arclight Phoenix might be a real improvement for Rakdos Reanimator, and Grixis Arclight Phoenix deck is the real deal, but I can't help but wonder if the best place for Arclight Phoenix isn't in a shell more similar to the Izzet deck in Modern. Legacy has fantastic card drawing spells like Brainstorm to help piece together the strategy, along with tons of other possible tools. Such a deck could also fit Force of Will, which the previous decks have foregone but a card I feel like I don't ever want to play Legacy without. In my search for Arclight Phoenix Legacy decks, I did learn that the esteemed Luis Scott-Vargas put together a video on ChannelFireball featuring an Izzet Arclight Phoenix Delver deck.
Putting Arclight Phoenix alongside Delver of Secrets makes sense because they both require a high spell count to function, so together would form the base of a solid aggressive plan if supported by the right spells. The said support spells in this deck are what you would expect, with Faithless Looting as the main discard outlet – Brainstorm can also pair with Thought Scour to bin any Arclight Phoenix. Gut Shot is a specialized free spell, but otherwise the deck is full of proven staples. There is one piece of spicy tech in Lava Dart, a free spell that can be cast from the graveyard. It's quite good with Arclight Phoenix, and I imagine any Legacy port of the Mono-Red version would want multiples.
LSV's deck looks great, but I wonder if it's the best way to harness the power of Arclight Phoenix. My mind keeps wandering to two cards specifically, Careful Study and Mental Note, two cards the Modern version of the Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck doesn't have. Mental Note functions as an additional Thought Scour, and Careful Study is another Faithless Looting – or a blue alternative for Force of Will or even a non-red version. Maybe a more self-mill variation is just too slow or susceptible to graveyard hate, but there must be some combination that gets it right. Here's what a Legacy port of the Modern version might look like:
One new consideration that adds a potential opportunity to Arclight Phoenix is Pteramander. The card is being discussed as a potential Legacy playable, and it's easy to see how it could work well with the same spells that enable Arclight Phoenix. Here it is in a Mono-Blue variation:
An alternative to Buried Alive worth considering is Intuition. Finding Arclight Phoenix isn't quite ideal because one copy goes to hand, but it's still quite good for digging into the card. It's more appealing than Buried Alive because it's basically just a Grim Tutor that can dig for any card with three or more copies in the deck. It also opens up room for some other graveyard synergies – for example hitting three Cabal Therapy is a very strong play to K.O. some opponents. One could get infinitely more creative with options like Lava Dart, Deep Analysis and maybe even Lingering Souls coming to mind as potential options for helping to support Arclight Phoenix.
Arclight Phoenix is just getting started in Legacy, and it has a bright future ahead of it. I can only imagine what the future will bring, but at this point I highly doubt that Arclight Phoenix won't end up making a serious impact on the format.