Izzet was utterly dominant in the Mythic Championship Qualifier on Magic Online last Sunday. The Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck, which has recently broken out as Modern's best new strategy, ultimately won the event and put another copy in the Top 8. To see the deck win is no real surprise, but what did grab my attention was the presence of multiple other takes on Izzet in the top of the standings. The top 8 included both an Izzet Thing in the Ice Control deck and an Izzet Wizards deck, strategies that have never proven to be fixtures in the top tier of Modern. Clearly there is something going on with blue and red cards in this Modern metagame that are allowing these fringe decks to now thrive. The rise of Izzet Arclight Phoenix must also be due in part to these same good metagame conditions. Today I aim to make sense of these results by digging deeper and shedding light on what exactly is going on in Modern.
Taking a further step back, a key part of Izzet decks is their red core, specifically Lighting Bolt. Not only do all of the Izzet decks in the Top 8 play some number of Lighting Bolt in their 75, so does every other deck in the Top 8 but one. It's a key part of Burn, and it works well with Snapcaster Mage in Grixis Shadow, which is technically an Izzet deck too. It appears that Lightning Bolt is the key factor behind the success of these Izzet decks, and the blue cards are simply along for the ride in a supporting role.
Lightning Bolt has always been one of Modern's very best cards, but there has been an ebb and flow to when it's particularly great, and now looks to be one of those times. It makes sense given that we're coming from a time when Bant Spirits was the most popular deck, which replaced another creature deck in Humans before that. Having an efficient removal spell like Lightning Bolt is all but critical for beating these decks, whether from a fair deck using it to keep pace or a combo deck to clear away a hoser like Spell Queller or Meddling Mage. Hardened Scales, the one non-red strategy in the Top 8, is another example of a deck against which Lightning Bolt is useful. It also does work killing Storm's key creatures, and it even takes out Scrap Trawler against Krark-Clan Ironworks combo, three of which reached the Top 16. Lightning Bolt will find will find a target against nearly every opponent, and if not it can always go to the face.
Decks that were acutely susceptible to Lightning Bolt did not fare well in the event. Take for example Spirits and Humans, both which failed to crack the Top 16 and put just one copy each into the top 32. A couple more Hardened Scales decks reached the top 32 along with one Retreat to Coralhelm deck, but the remainder of the top 32 was decks either with Lightning Bolt – including Hollow One – or decks mostly immune to it, including Dredge and White-Blue Control. The decks on top last weekend were decks that play well against Lightning Bolt but that also best utilize what Lightning Bolt has to offer.
Lightning Bolt does amazing work in the Izzet Phoenix deck in a variety of roles. It's a proactive spell to fuel Arclight Phoenix and Thing in the Ice, but the damage also really helps the deck close out opponents. It's an aggressive deck at its core, complete with Monastery Swiftspear. The deck does have a combo element, but as far as Modern goes it's actually a relatively interactive and even fair deck in most games, so having a removal spell like Lightning Bolt also goes a long way towards putting a stop to what the opponent is doing.
Beyond Lightning Bolt, the deck also includes a couple of other substitutes that can help interact with the opponent. Gut Shot is a watered-down version of Lightning Bolt that only kills the smallest creatures, but for no mana it's a devastating play when it does find a target. Quite often Lightning Bolt hits small early game creatures like Noble Hierarch or Steel Overseer, and Gut Shot does a much better job at that. It also has great synergy with Arclight Phoenix and Thing in the Ice as a free spell towards triggering them. Lightning Axe adds a Lightning Bolt effect with another sort of synergy, in its case as a graveyard enabler to aid Arclight Phoenix. It's definitely a specialty card for decks that want to discard, but it does come with the advantage of dealing more damage than Lightning Bolt and potentially taking out larger creatures.
The need to interact with opponents is what makes Thing in the Ice such a key part of the Izzet Phoenix strategy. Against creature opponents, most of which rely on just a few ways if any to interact with opposing creatures, Thing in the Ice functions much like a Tarmogoyf, an enormous piece of battlefield presence for the cost, plus something like a one-sided Terminus in how it clears the battlefield at nearly no cost. It's a haymaker of a card, truly a one-card combo, and one that requires minimal setup.
This all makes it natural fit into the deck as an alternate payoff for the deck's high spell count. Hitting multiple Arclight Phoenix and overwhelming the opponent is the goal of the deck, but it's not a plan that will come together every game. Thing in the Ice is much easier to interact with than Arclight Phoenix so it doesn't feel as broken, but in reality it's a more consistent plan and arguably even more powerful, at least in some situations. It has played a large role in the success of the Izzet Phoenix deck, even if Arclight Phoenix is a flashier namesake.
The important takeaway is Thing in the Ice is one of the best cards in Modern right now, presumably for many of the same reasons Lightning Bolt is so good. Stopping creatures is important, and Thing in the Ice is even more effective than Lightning Bolt at doing so. It's recent success in the Arclight Phoenix deck has overshadowed the fact that it's a great card in its own right that can be used by a variety of strategies. It's a key part of the plan of the Izzet Control deck that finished in the Top 4 of the MCQ.
This Izzet Control deck shares much of the Izzet Phoenix core, but it uses its card selection to empower a more interactive and disruptive gameplan rather than focus on advancing its own agenda. Thing in the Ice is perfect for this type of strategy as a cheap play that can pay dividends later without any active investment. Having this sort of proactive plan is important in a Modern where opponents can win the game in so many ways and establishing true control is difficult - it's critical to have your own way to win that the opponent must respect or potentially die to. The deck is otherwise uninterested in winning the game, and falls back on one of Modern's most successful historic combinations, Lighting Bolt and Snapcaster Mage, to eventually close out the opponent.
Snapcaster Mage has long been a very Izzet-flavored card in Modern because of this pairing, and it remains so strong in part because Lighting Bolt is so good and worth casting multiple times. It's this fact that drives Izzet Wizards to embrace a tribal theme, the sole payoff for which is Wizard's Lightning. This move means the deck effectively has eight Lightning Bolt, which gives it a massive advantage if Lightning Bolt is truly the best card in Modern.
Izzet Wizards first started appearing after Dominaria was released, but it's really just starting to break out as a legitimate Modern contender. I can't help but wonder if it's the strength of Lightning Bolt and Wizard's Lightning, and their great position in the metagame, that has helped the deck finally thrive.
While it's not technically a purely Izzet deck, Grixis Death's Shadow shares much in common with Izzet decks in terms of shared cards and strategy. In fact it's the top Snapcaster Mage-Lightning Bolt deck in the format, as Jeskai has been in decline and was absent from the top 32.
This deck does typically diversify its removal suite by splitting Lightning Bolt with Fatal Push, which belies that Lightning Bolt is first and foremost a removal spell in this midrange deck, but also that Lightning Bolt's ability to help kill the opponent is too strong to pass up. The deck even makes use of Lightning Bolt in a very unique way, targeted at oneself as a sort of permanent Giant Growth on Death's Shadow. The deck has been going through a renaissance over the past few weeks, and it's making itself known as one of the very top decks in the metagame right now.
If Lightning Bolt is Modern's best card, then it makes sense that playing as more copies is great whenever possible, and so Snapcaster Mage is thriving, and Wizard's Lightning is seeing real success. Rather than jumping through hoops, the easiest way to play more Lightning Bolt is to play the Burn deck.
Rift Bolt is Lightning Bolt's closest analogue in terms of efficiency and consistency, but Burn goes much deeper on the "deal three damage" path with many other spells. Lightning Helix is just Lightning Bolt plus a Healing Salve, and Searing Blaze is something like two Lightning Bolt is one. A deck full of all Lightning Bolt would be surprisingly effective at killing the opponent, so Lava Spike fills in as a substitute. There's multiple reasons why Burn has been on the rise and is now being called one of Modern's top strategies, and a big one is Lightning Bolt. Some others are that it's actually quite strong against Izzet decks, especially the Arclight Phoenix deck, so it's preying on the metagame, while weak matchup Dredge is starting to be reigned in.
I'm interested to see where Modern heads from here. In theory, Lightning Bolt will eventually stop being so good as the metagame reacts. Creature decks should start to decline, while decks that play well against Lightning Bolt will become more attractive. This should play out to some degree, which would make a deck like Izzet Control less successful. That said, I also can't help but wonder if Lightning Bolt is such a strong part of the proactive plan of decks like Izzet Arclight Phoenix and Burn, regardless of its opponent, that Lightning Bolt will remain a persistent presence and continue to make life difficult for creature decks.