Many of us saw Arclight Phoenix as a potential contender in Modern, with some tipping it to be the Next Big Thing in the format. Those people are going to have very sore arms now, due to the amount of time they're spending patting themselves on the back – Izzet Phoenix is currently the most popular deck on MTGO, and it owes its entire existence to Arclight Phoenix.
As a result of the deck's dominance, I wasn't surprised to see it do well during last weekend's Modern PTQ, with two pilots going 8-0 and three going 7-1. However, I was a little more surprised to see the other Izzet lists that flanked it in the undefeated bracket - it seems that Steam Vents (despite the latest printing depicting neither steam nor vents in its art) is the flavor of the month in Modern.
While Izzet Phoenix is well and truly established as a key player in the Modern metagame, we haven't seen a lot of Blue-Red Control. We saw the waning of the old "Blue Moon" decks that used to leverage the power of Blood Moon alongside Counterspells to lock opponents out, and while there was a lot of talk about the potential of Wizard's Lightning after Dominaria was printed, nothing really came of it.
That may be set to change. Just as Arclight Phoenix single-handedly (single-wingdedly?) provoked a pretty meaningful shift in the Modern landscape, these new Izzet decks may yet be poised to do the same thing in the coming weeks. Modern is a highly dynamic format – let's have a look at what's on the bleeding edge of it right now!
This deck is so well-established that it should be readily familiar to anyone invested in Modern. Nonetheless, there are still important changes, tweaks, and updates being made from week to week - while one 8-0 pilot, eXavie, stuck to a traditional creature suite, I want to talk about the list played by MTGO player White Tsar.
Generally speaking, we're starting to see a lot more cohesion across Phoenix lists these days, as the hivemind slowly works towards the optimal list. This spell suite offers a good balance of cantrips, discard enablers, and light interaction – the perfect support suite for creatures such as Thing in the Ice, Crackling Drake, and of course Arclight Phoenix.
It's the addition of Monastery Swiftspear that is the most interesting in this list. Traditionally, this isn't an all-guns-blazing deck – it doesn't seek to come out of the gates at speed and get 'em dead as soon as possible, instead playing a slightly more conservative game, sculpting both the hand and graveyard with various cheap instants and sorceries before winning in a few huge hits with Awoken Horror, multiple Phoenixes, or a massive Cracking Drake.
There's some tension, therefore, with one of the most aggressive creatures ever printed. Monastery Swiftspear incentivizes early aggression and does seem to be at odds with a card like Crackling Drake (especially considering that four mana is a lot in Modern. However, under the surface you can see it makes a lot of sense.
Swiftspear rewards you for deploying the cards in your hand as quickly as possible, something that this deck is naturally trying to do when flipping a Thing in the Ice, bringing back Phoenixes, and fueling Cracking Drakes. For that reason, having access to a one-drop that can poke in for three or four damage (and perhaps eating a removal spell) isn't a bad call.
Is it the right one, however? I'm still not convinced, and my feeling is that the Phoenix deck is better without Swiftspear. It feels as though the list above – while doubtlessly successful this weekend – is moving in an unsustainable direction, where the deck won't be able to support its own gameplan due to being pulled in too many different directions. I'm ready to be wrong about this, but I'd leave Monastery Swiftspear to Burn players.
For quite a long time in Modern's history, there weren't really any "real" control decks. Celestial Colonnade saw play in Jeskai lists, but they all had to have a very proactive, tempo-like way to win as the format could apply too much pressure to all their answers. This changed recently, of course, with the unbanning of Jace and the addition of Teferi, and now both White-Blue and Jeskai Control are "real" decks once again.
During the period where control decks were lacking, however, there was a Concerted Effort from dedicated fans of Cryptic Command to make a pure Blue-Red Control deck work. Typically it revolved around Blood Moon, and won with cards like Batterskull or Pia and Kiran Nalaar – and after a brief flash in the Pro Tour pan, faded into obscurity.
It turns out Arclight Phoenix isn't the only Guilds of Ravnica card getting a run in Modern Izzet decks – Ral, Izzet Viceroy appeared this weekend as a curve-topper in Rooney56's 8-0 PTQ list. While it may not have Blood Moons, Blue-Red Control is back!
I'm loath to ever Put Away my sweet, sweet Celestial Colonnades, but this deck harks back to the kind of deck that control mages were struggling to make work in 2014-2015, flying by the seat of its pants and winning with razor-thin margins. "Control" might be a slight misnomer; this deck has a big tempo feel to it, and is the sort of list to really test your skills as a pilot.
The lack of "hard" answers – sweepers like Supreme Verdict or Terminus, point removal like Path to Exile – means you have to be spot-on with your threat evaluation and resource management, and have a very clear picture of which cards you can and which cards you can't beat.
Still, the rewards are there. The slow, ponderous pace of White-Blue control - a deck that never gets a single "free win" and instead has to grind 'em out to the last card – looks pretty unappealing when set against the potential Bolt-Snap-Bolt turnaround this deck threatens. Rather than win over a million turns once comfortably ahead, this "control" deck can buy itself enough breathing room and even win from behind with its flash creatures and burn component.
I'll be playing a lot of this deck in the coming days, as I'm keen to see exactly how it matches up against the many unfair decks in the format (I love the main deck Relics for that exact purpose), to investigate Ral's potential in Modern (it feels like a better option than the clunky Batterskulls of yesteryear), and most importantly why this deck isn't playing a single copy of Blood Moon, the best "free win" card in the format!
People have tried to make Delver of Secrets work in Modern since it broke Legacy in two, but it never really game together. There was a degenerate chapter in Modern's history when Treasure Cruise was legal and we all lived in fear of Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer, but for the most part, Delver has had a pretty quiet Modern career.
You might have already seen the Izzet Wizards deck – it's done the rounds, putting up the odd 5-0 here and there, but never really making a name for itself. This latest effort - an admirable 8-0 from cha21 – may be another seven-day wonder, but it's still worth talking about.
First of all, yes; Nimble Obstructionist is a Wizard; second of all, yes – it's an instant-speed, cycling Stone Rain against fetch lands. Ouch. Obstructionist included, this deck's slightly weird creature suite is designed with a singular purpose - giving this deck access to eight (or more!) copies of Lightning Bolt. This deck truly embodies the Bolt-Snap-Bolt life, and I love it.
Lightning Bolt is a format-defining Modern card, so doubling the number of copies of it in your deck is no joke. With sixteen Wizards, this isn't a difficult thing to do, and all of a sudden Wizard's Lightning goes from being a high pick in Dominaria draft to a carbon copy of one of Modern's most-played spells.
The rest of the deck is little more than a support cast – this is a tempo deck, aiming to stymie the opposing gameplan with conditional but extremely efficient interaction, all the while putting the opponent on a real clock. This deck readily deploys a three-power flier, and threats like that can make short work of your life total while you're fighting through permission like Mana Leak or Remand, or removal like eight copies of Lightning Bolt.
One thing that really stands out to me about this list is the transformative applications of its sideboard. While it can't pivot into a hard control deck, I like how cha21 is set up to grind out longer games with "bigger" cards like Ancestral Vision or Pia and Kiran Nalaar. Flexibility like that will pay dividends, and help to ensure a more favorable position in most game twos.
It's great to see Modern continuing to shift and evolve, and it's very important indeed to monitor and adapt to (or experiment with!) these ongoing changes. Arclight Phoenix is here to stay – no doubt about that – but it may just be the vanguard of a swath of Steam Vents decks all entering the format. I don't know if Izzet Control or Izzet Wizards have what it takes to establish themselves in Modern, but I tell you that I'm excited to find out.