Izzet Arclight Phoenix put on a show last weekend at MagicFest Los Angeles, where Michael Bernat played the deck to first place. When Eli Kassis won Grand Prix Oakland at the turn of the new year, the story was of Arclight Phoenix's rise from a new rogue strategy to the top-tier. Last weekend the story was of Arclight Phoenix's sustained dominance, and a very strong argument that it's the best deck in Modern.
One of the biggest strengths of the Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck is the sideboarding phase. Sideboarding might seem like a very scary time for a deck based around abusing the graveyard, which is historically one of Magic's most hosed strategies. Playing the deck means running into cards like Surgical Extraction, Relic of Progenitus, Rest in Peace, and Leyline of the Void with regularity. The trick is that while these cards are effective against the deck, it's designed to not rely on the graveyard. Izzet Phoenix is a flexible deck with multiple angles of attack, so it doesn't simply fold to graveyard hosers, and often fights through them quite easily by outright ignoring them. Izzet Phoenix is simultaneously a degenerate graveyard deck and a midrange deck, with plenty of "fair" ways to win that don't rely on the graveyard. Thing in the Ice acts like a giant Tarmogoyf. Crackling Drake is an even more giant, flying one, which I've grown to call "make a 20/20, go" when I slam it into play and put my opponent dead next turn as if it's a Marit Lage Token from Dark Depths. True to a midrange deck, Izzet Phoenix also improves during sideboarding with access to a suite of powerful hosers and flexible disruption to put a stop to whatever the opponent is doing.
Sideboarding with Izzet Phoenix can be described as the opponent fumbling to fight against Izzet Phoenix with graveyard hosers that aren't as good as they think they are—or at least not as good as they typically are against graveyard decks—but that they can't afford not to have because Arclight Phoenix is so busted. At the same time, the Izzet deck will be bringing in its own hosers and disruption, while sideboarding to pre-empt the opponent's hosers and minimize its reliance on the graveyard! This is the sort of edge that was enjoyed by Splinter Twin Combo and Birthing Pod, or any other deck that hybridizes a combo finish into a midrange deck, and it leaves the opposition with no easy solutions.
Making the most of Izzet Arclight Phoenix means mastering the sideboard phase. I've put a lot of work into the deck, and today I'll share what I've learned. I'll cover sideboarding strategy against all of Modern's current major matchups, with a focus on explaining the general theory behind battling different strategies and the keys to each matchup. I'll also include sideboarding plans. I first wrote plans using Michael Bernat's decklist, which is very close to what I have been playing, but I was uncomfortable with some of the finer numbers. Instead I've decided share my current decklist and my real sideboard plans I've developed over weeks of play, which can be adapted to whatever list you're playing.
The best matchups for Izzet Phoenix are those where its creature removal elements are turned on. When Thing in the Ice is more than just a large threat but also a Plague Wind that disrupts the opponent's core strategy, they will have a really hard time. These decks are also susceptible to Lightning Bolt and Lightning Axe as creature removal, and worst of all is when a deck has good targets for Gut Shot. This strength against creature decks means Arclight Phoenix has significantly disrupted the metagame, and dramatically lowered the metagame share of Bant Spirits, which before Arclight Phoenix was the most popular deck. Humans, Infect, Merfolk, Eldrazi, and Collected Company decks are all other examples of decks that Izzet Phoenix preys on. Sideboarding against creature decks is straightforward, which boils down to adding more creature removal.
Abrade adds creature removal but also deals with Grafdigger's Cage and Relic of Progenitus, two cards commonly used to fight against the deck. Hitting any random equipment, Aether Vial against tribal decks, or Chalice of the Void against Eldrazi or Merfolk adds more utility against creature decks.
A singleton copy of Anger of the Gods has overperformed for me in testing, and I missed it when I played without. It can get you out of situations that few other cards can, and that makes it an invaluable tool to have against creature decks. When watching coverage over the weekend I watched MPL member and Hall of Famer Owen Turtenwald slam the card on turn three on the play against his Burn opponent, who had a Goblin Guide and a freshly-cast Eidolon of the Great Revel, which is the biggest problem card in the matchup. Anger of the Gods easily won the game with a clean two-for-one, which would otherwise have required two removal spells or would have been very difficult to win. Anger of the Gods doesn't scream out to most as an obviously great card against Burn, but this sort of savvy sideboarding is what makes Owen such a successful player, and helps Izzet Phoenix navigate a hostile metagame.
Bernat didn't play it, but Beacon Bolt is another useful card against creature decks. It would be overkill to include it just for these creature matchups, but I've found the card to be most important in other matchups. It's at its best against Grixis Death's Shadow, where it can take out Death's Shadow or Gurmag Angler, and against Jund decks where it kills Tarmogoyf. It's also quite useful in the mirror, where it can destroy Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake. I've even come to sideboard it in against Azorius Control decks as low-cost insurance against Lyra Dawnbringer and Baneslayer Angel, which are otherwise a nightmare. For this reason it earns a spot in my sideboard over a card like Rending Volley, which is more efficient when applicable, especially in the mirror match, but much less versatile.
The most popular creature deck remaining in the metagame is Hardened Scales, which made it to the finals of the Grand Prix. I've had an incredibly positive record against the deck when grinding online, and I count it as one of the best matchups for Izzet Phoenix. It's tougher when they draw Hardened Scales, which makes grinding them out very difficult, but Thing in the Ice will beat anything they can do as you as long as you play around Walking Ballista.
Dismember from the sideboard gives them more game against Thing in the Ice, and Grafdigger's Cage stops Arclight Phoenix, but the extra removal Izzet gains makes up for it. Sideboarding and playing against classic Affinity is similar. Galvanic Blast gives them outs against Thing in the Ice and Experimental Frenzy can run away with the game, but on the other hand they are very susceptible to creature removal.
Thought Scour is the worst cantrip in the deck because it merely replaces itself. That makes its particularly worse after sideboard, because it's not card selection that helps find sideboard cards. It's also worse after sideboarding because the opponent brings in graveyard hosers. That makes it the first card to cut when trimming numbers against fast aggressive decks, where it can be too slow. I also cut Pyromancer Ascension in these matchups, where it's too slow, and the card advantage it creates is not necessary.
Crackling Drake tends to get better after sideboard because it beats graveyard hosers. It's at its best in grindy matchups against midrange decks, but it has been an important tool against creature decks where intuitively it might seem too slow. It's a very effective blocker against these decks, whether Inkmoth Nexus against Hardened Scales and Infect, Mantis Rider against Humans, and all of the Spirits decks. It also offers some counterplay to Reflector Mage, since it's not an ideal card to bounce.
Grixis Death's Shadow, Jund, Mardu Pyromancer, Jeskai Control, and even Azorius Control are all decks I consider midrange decks when sideboarding with Arclight Phoenix. These matchups tend to be favorable, since these removal-based attritions strategies are inherently weak against Arclight Phoenix itself. These decks tend to over-rely on graveyard hosers to stop it, which leaves them susceptible to the other threats in the deck. That said, the Izzet Phoenix deck isn't great at dealing with opposing threats, whether it be a massive Death's Shadow or Tarmogoyf, hordes of tokens from Lingering Souls and Young Pyromancer, or planeswalkers and Celestial Colonnade from Azorius. Sideboarding against these decks means taking measures to side-step their hosers while disrupting the opponent wherever possible.
I've found that Blood Moon is often effective against Death's Shadow decks, especially when they don't expect it. They typically find shocklands early in the game to set up Death's Shadow, and that can lead to Blood Moon locking them out unexpectedly. This actually came up on camera during Grand Prix coverage, and Blood Moon disrupted the opponent just enough to earn the Izzet deck the win, when locking out a fetchland to enable revolt on Fatal Push proved to be important. Using Dispel and Spell Pierce might seem intuitive and they do have merit, but they can be a bit narrow against the deck, where their large creatures tend to be the real problem, not their disruption.
I've come to like sideboarding in Blood Moon against Azorius Control as well, especially when on the play. It will occasionally catch them without basics, but even just cutting off access to double blue or double white, or even triple blue for Cryptic Command, can make it worthwhile. Celestial Colonnade can also be a problem, so Blood Moon can buy a lot of time and forces them to find a planeswalker to win.
Izzet Phoenix against combo decks and Urzatron boils down to a race. Izzet Phoenix tends to have more disruption, but on balance it also tends to be slower than the combo decks, so it does rely on that disruption or on its fastest draws.
I've not played against a ton of Amulet Bloom decks, but Izzet does have access some great tools in the matchup after sideboard. Beyond Blood Moon, Abrade stands out as a great tool for destroying Amulet of Vigor or Azusa, Lost but Seeking. Dispel can catch a Summoner's Pact, or protect Blood Moon from Assassin's Trophy, Thing in the Ice from Path to Exile, or catch one of their sideboard counterspells, so it's another useful tool.
This is a matchup where I cut Crackling Drake. The extra threats are unnecessary and it's a bit too slow. Beacon Bolt to retain the option to kill Primeval Titan seems valuable, and could also beat their sometimes sideboard plan of playing a huge creature like Dragonlord Dromoka or Ruric Thar, the Unbowed.
Tron is a tough matchup for Izzet Phoenix. Blood Moon helps, but it's well known that Blood Moon is only a half measure against Urzatron, which will inevitably just drop lands and cast their spells naturally, including Oblivion Stone that can destroy the enchantment. Their big spells are all troublesome in their own way, with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger being lights out. The deck also includes Relic of Progenitus, often maindeck, which beats the Arclight Phoenix plan. The best strategy is to race and apply damage as fast as possible. Arclight Phoenix is a go-to, but the best route can actually be Thing in the Ice, which can flip turn three and steal the game on the play or against an opponent who stumbles. This plus an Arclight Phoenix or two and some burn can take the game.
Sideboarding against Urzatron is aimed at buying some time with Blood Moon and Spell Pierce. I've heard some players attempt the strategy of using Thought Scour on the opponent and then snagging a land with Surgical Extraction, but I don't think the matchup is that desperate. Ceremonious Rejection can go a long way to helping, especially with a Snapcaster Mage to flash it back.
The Dredge matchup is one I know well, as it was the most popular deck in the metagame until it was overtaken by Izzet Phoenix. It's susceptible to Thing in the Ice, but it does have answers in Conflagrate and sideboard Lightning Axe. It doesn't have a great solution to Arclight Phoenix beyond sideboarding Leyline of the Void, which some do, but it really doesn't need to because its main plan will easily race Arclight Phoenix. That puts the impetus on the Izzet Phoenix player to interact, and the best way to do that is Surgical Extraction. Surgical Extraction goes a long way towards beating Dredge, so including it maindeck really helps the matchup. Drawing two after sideboard almost always gets the job done, so playing with Snapcaster Mage is one way to further improve the matchup.
Dredge can also be disrupted by countermagic, so I bring in Spell Pierce. Anger of the Gods is also a huge help, and fully capable of stealing a game.
The Izzet Phoenix mirror match has become the most important matchup in Modern. It's also surprisingly simple because the Izzet Phoenix deck is rather simple itself. The deck is mostly card drawing that replaces itself, so there are very few action spells in the deck. That makes it extremely consistent and flexible, but also predictable. The most important card is Thing in the Ice, which is difficult to kill before it flips, and nearly impossible afterwards. Whoever is the first to flip and attack with a Thing in the Ice is in the driver's seat. Arclight Phoenix is of course fantastic, and getting two into play early is a path to victory, but the prevalence of Surgical Extraction after sideboard and even game one diminishes its value. Crackling Drake is similar to Thing in the Ice in that it's a large, hard-to-kill threat, so it also plays a part, especially as a back-up kill condition if the others are hit with Surgical Extraction.
Sideboarding in the mirror match is similarly straightforward, with the goal being to interact as much as possible. Dispel shines here, both as a way to disrupt the opponent, with Manamorphose being the best target, but also as an answer to Surgical Extraction. Remember you can use your own Surgical Extraction to "counter" theirs, especially when you have other copies in the graveyard to protect. Removal for killing Thing in the Ice is critical, but I've found that Lightning Bolt is pretty poor in the mirror match. It does become a bit better with Pteramander becoming popular, but otherwise it doesn't kill anything, so I am happy to cut them.
Burn is one of the hardest matchups for Izzet Phoenix. Game one is particularly difficult because Izzet's only real interaction is with creatures, so it's forced to race. A quick Thing in the Ice flipping or a double Arclight Phoenix draw are the most feasible paths to victory. Countermagic from the sideboard gives Izzet the ability to interact with Burn, but the matchup is hard enough and popular enough that most sideboards also play a dedicated burn hoser like Dragon's Claw or Life Goes On. It's a testament to the need for help in the matchup since it's the only deck to demand such a narrow hoser, but it's a wise move for as long as the deck remains popular. All the countermeasures in the sideboard do go a long way against Burn, and I've been able to win my fair share and become confident in the matchup.
Crackling Drake is impressive against Burn because as a four-mana play it offers an out to Eidolon of the Great Revel, which is their single best card in the matchup.
There's no card in the Izzet Phoenix sideboard more important than Blood Moon, which I use to handle a huge selection of matchups, including many non-traditional matchups where you might not expect it to perform. I first picked up on this when reading Eli Kassis's tournament report after he won Oakland, where he shared that he uses Blood Moon to hose Burn. Burn is typically a Boros deck with many white spells, which often include sideboard cards like Path to Exile, which is great against all of the threats in Izzet Phoenix, and even Rest in Peace. The key for any deck to beat Burn is to interact as much as possible, which for Izzet means killing all of their creatures ASAP, but not much else. Blood Moon cutting off white mana and turning off even one burn spells is meaningful interaction, and in practice it can shut down many more and win games that would be otherwise unwinnable. I was amazed when I put Eli's plan into action, and it has become a key part of my strategy for beating Burn. It's never so good as when Burn players sideboard in Ensnaring Bridge, which is a piece of tech they sometimes play and is very effective for shutting down Izzet Phoenix, which relies on creatures to win the game. I regularly beat Ensnaring Bridge with Blood Moon, which strands the Burn player with white spells in hand and eventually allows Arclight Phoenix to get through. That said, Blood Moon is really only good against Burn decks with white, and hasn't performed well against the black version with Bump in the Night and Light Up the Stage. Against these decks you're better off with Abrade as extra creature removal or with keeping Thought Scour.
Whir Prison is the toughest of the popular matchups for Izzet Phoenix, and its ascension to a top strategy is on the back of this strong Izzet Phoenix matchup. Their strength lies in their lock pieces, with Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge shutting down the strategy. This makes game one a very lopsided affair, but Izzet does have a deep sideboard to draw from. When I do beat Whir Prison, Blood Moon has been a key factor. They do have Mox Opal, but it turns off their ability to cast Whir of Invention and cycle Tolaria West. It also turns off their utility lands, so it really cuts off their ability to tutor and find their key artifacts. Keep in mind they can stack two Mox Opal to escape with Engineered Explosives, but this will destroy their Ensnaring Bridge and force a Welding Jar. Spell Pierce comes in handy for snagging artifacts, and Dispel can counter Whir of Invention. Abrade is a must, but more is necessary to fight through their multiple lock pieces and Welding Jar to protect them. Shattering Spree is excellent because it can fight through any number of Welding Jar, but it does lose to Spellskite. Shatterstorm is a cleaner solution, but also more narrow. Hurkyl's Recall suffers from losing to Witchbane Orb. If Whir Prison becomes more popular, the addition of more hosers will be advisable. The addition of a planeswalker to the sideboard also goes a long way towards beating Whir Prison, especially because they tend to cut Sorcerous Spyglass.