For most of Magic's history the route to the Pro Tour was to win a Pro Tour Qualifier, a winner-takes-all tournament in a city near you that would send one player to the next Pro Tour. It's the stuff of pure Magic—scores of wizards travelling through the darkness from across the land to a sacred meeting ground, where at dawn begins their arcane battle royal. By nightfall only one wizard remains, and earns their passage to a higher realm. This idea captivated my young mind, and I first built my Magic career by relentlessly competing in and winning Pro Tour Qualifiers, my body compelled to travel to any event within a few hours striking distance and fight tooth and nail for the invitation.
At some point this system was done away with in favor of Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, PPTQs, which instead acted as intermediaries that qualified players for a larger Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. The system created a lot of debate, and personally they never captured my attention. Last fall when Wizards revealed that the Grand Prix circuit would be changing its name to "MagicFest" it came with the news that they would also be doing away with PPTQs, and would be returning to the old PTQ system, now known as MCQs to match the Pro Tour's new Mythic Championship branding.
This return to the old system gives me a chance to relive my glory days of grinding PTQs, and I think it's a great opportunity for anyone out there who wants their shot at making it to a Mythic Championship. I've already skipped events in driving distance, so admittedly I must not be nearly as hungry now as I was as an uninitiated teenager looking to prove himself, and I was even hungrier still once I had a taste and wanted to get back. That said, I have been grinding MCQs on Magic Online, where a gut-wrenching second-place finish in a sealed deck MCQ a few weeks ago left me hungrier than I have felt in years. This weekend an MCQ comes to town within just an hour's distance, the closest on the schedule, and it's the ideal chance for me to get my fill.
The name of the game in Standard, a format I haven't had much reason to play competitively in recent months. I've come to discover that Standard formats of recent years are anything but simple, and I've all but embarrassed myself competing in larger events like Grand Prix thinking I could succeed with minimal to no preparation. Without much recent Standard experience I haven't had the highest hopes about winning the MCQ, but with its approach this week the fire is building. It's a real opportunity and not one to waste, and I know I can seize it if I focus my preparation.
When I jump into what's essentially a new format, I like to shortcut the process by starting with the "best deck." I've historically had a lot of success playing the typical most popular and defining deck of a format, and I think it's easier and more effective to just copy what is winning than to reinvent the wheel. That meant the obvious choice for this metagame was Jeskai Planeswalkers, which had been building hype for weeks on Twitter and Magic Arena, and then had a big paper breakout by winning the SCG Open in Syracuse.
Last week I ran this winning list through a Magic Online league to a decent finish, but since then we've had the Magic Arena Mythic Qualifier, and I was curious about those results.
Jeskai was completely absent from the Top 16 qualifying players, but instead an Esper Planeswalkers deck was very successful, finishing in first place.
This strategy had already caught my attention from finishing in the finals of the SCG event, so I ran it through a league. Three losses later, and I realized that playing Esper Planeswalkers, or any variation of the strategy, was not a battle I wanted to be in. All of my opponents seemed to be more than prepared for what I was bringing to the table. The biggest issue was the new Four-Color Command the Dreadhorde deck, which requires fighting back against its creatures like Merfolk Branchwalker if you want any hope of keeping planeswalkers around, but then will just go over the top on you with its own planeswalkers and Command the Dreadhorde. The three-color painland-filled deck also felt clunky against the blazing fast Mono-Red, which punishes any stumble.
With the Planeswalkers decks scrapped I was without a deck or any clear way forward. The new Command the Dreadhorde deck was an option, but it seemed rather inconsistent and painful, and I wasn't confident it was more than a flash in the pan.
While this deck has been having success, Frank Karsten broke down the results of the Magic Arena MCQ, and the Command the Dreadhorde deck had just a 40.5% day-two win rate, one of the poorest of all archetypes. It was in this analysis that I discovered the highest day-two win rate was held not by Esper and its impressive 71%, but by U/R Phoenix, with a convincing 77%, taking 3 of the 16 invites. After originally discounting the strategy as old news, I was suddenly excited about its prospects and brought the U/R deck to battle. By the very first game knew I was on to something.
Four rounds later and I had earned a 4-1, with the loss due to loose play. I battled another league to a 3-0 before heading to bed, but it's safe to say I am locked in for the MCQ, and now it's just a matter of tuning.
U/R Phoenix has proven competitive since Guilds of Ravnica, but it moved from a middling performer to what looks like the single best deck in the format because of War of the Spark and its Finale of Promise, which is good enough to have become a staple in the Modern version. Finale of Promise offers two-for-one value as well as fantastic synergy with Arclight Phoenix as three spells in one, and it makes the deck significantly more powerful while giving it more fuel into the late game.
The U/R Phoenix strategy is proactive and straightforward, and the deck is inherently consistent because it is built on a strong two-color manabase supported by a wealth of card selection. It's also full of efficient cards like Shock, which also give it disruption against both creatures and planeswalkers. Arclight Phoenix itself, with haste and evasion, is an ideal threat for pressuring planeswalkers.
The deck has a very strong plan A of Arclight Phoenix, but it's also notable for its flexibility and propensity to shift game plans, which is made possible by the card selection. Against aggressive decks it can take on a more controlling role, using Augur of Bolas as a two-for-one and speedbump, while against other decks it may play more like a combo deck using Goblin Electromancer to explode onto the battlefield.
My experience with Arclight Phoenix in the leagues has been very different from that with the Planeswalkers decks. Against Four-Color Dreadhorde, my most frequent opponent so far, the U/R Phoenix deck seems perfectly positioned. Where the Planeswalkers decks have to deal with Merfolk Branchwalker and Jadelight Ranger, U/R Phoenix can either ignore them and race or deal with them efficiently using Shock and Finale of Promise. Where Planeswalkers had few ways to pressure opposing planeswalkers, Arclight Phoenix and even Goblin Electromancer provide ample pressure, and means opponents have a hard time protecting a planeswalker. I was especially impressed with how well U/R Phoenix could pressure the opponent's life total and restrict the utility of Command the Dreadhorde. Best of all was U/R Phoenix's access to countermagic, which put additional pressure on their key spells. The particular decklist I used, the highest finishing list from the Arena MCQ, includes two maindeck Spell Pierce, and they were invaluable cards I could not imagine playing without.
I also played against multiple red aggro and white aggro decks, which U/R Phoenix has plenty of removal to stop, especially after sideboard. Augur of Bolas is also a huge help here, and the fact that most decklists sideboard up to four copies shows just how useful it can be.
U/R Phoenix is not without its issues and potential pitfalls, so it's important to be aware of them. I learned the hard way, for example, that the static ability of Teferi, Time Raveler prevents Finale of Promise from actually casting its targets. Narset, Parter of Veils is also a problem for a deck full of card drawing spells. Luckily U/R Phoenix does have the tools to beat these, with burn spells really helping out. Card choices like some number of Lightning Strike over Lava Coil, for example, helps gain an extra edge against planeswalkers.
The decision to play maindeck Spell Pierce along with more countermagic in the sideboard will help against planeswalkers, but the rest of the sideboard isn't so cut and dry. Izzet has a deep card pool of quality cards, and there is a wide metagame of opponents to prepare for, so there is a lot of variety in the tools U/R decks use in their sideboard. Legion Warboss is generally accepted as a great threat to pressure planeswalkers and control decks, so it's found in most sideboards and will be in mine this weekend, but there are other aggressive options showing up in results.
One is Ghitu Lavarunner, which gives the deck a whole new angle and could catch opponents by surprise. Even if it doesn't, as one-mana play it will line up better against removal like Shock. Apparently another route is to just go bigger than removal, but I'll admit seeing a pair of Charging Monstrosaur in an Izzet sideboard was a surprise! I might be more tempted to play the more flexible Skarrgan Hellkite in the slot, but if anything I'll be playing a copy of Niv-Mizzet, Parun, which is a whole gameplan unto itself.
One alternative piece of tech from the MCQ is to skip pressuring planeswalkers with creatures and use The Immortal Sun to shut them off. It's a huge haymaker against Planeswalkers decks to be sure, but I wonder if it's really necessary, and It's liable to walk right into their sideboard cards like Spell Pierce or Negate.
The list I've been testing with was the highest finish U/R Phoenix decklist from the Arena MCQ, and I've arrived at some sideboard plans with the list, but the theory behind them will apply to any specific decklist.
The burn spells of U/R Phoenix allow it to maintain pace with Mono-Red, and Augur of Bolas really shines in the matchup. The sideboard plan is to go up to four copies and remove Goblin Electromancer, which is vulnerable to burn, and embrace a more controlling plan. Finale of Promise is the perfect way to round out the control plan, burying the red deck in card advantage. Spell Pierce is effective here for stopping their most dangerous cards, Experimental Frenzy and Chandra, Fire Artisan, and can catch their typical sideboard plan of Lava Coil.
The same theory and plan applies to R/G, except countermagic is unnecessary so instead of Spell Pierce you go bigger with Beacon Bolt and Niv-Mizzet, Parun.
Mono-White plays out similarly to Mono-Red, but their lack of burn to prey on Goblin Electromancer makes the Goblin more effective and capable of explosive draws. It's better than Spell Pierce, just be aware it doesn't play well with Fiery Cannonade.
In the Four-Color Dreadhorde matchup Phoenix functions as the aggressive deck, and seeks to apply as much pressure as possible to render their planeswalkers untenable and Command the Dreadhorde useless. Countermagic from the sideboard makes their life very difficult. Their most threatening card (and the most threatening card from all green decks) is Wildgrowth Walker, which after just one explore trigger moves beyond the range of a single burn spell. Destroying it ASAP is of the utmost importance in all games, so sideboard in Lava Coil and Beacon Bolt.
The matchup against Jeskai and Esper Planeswalkers decks revolves around the planeswalkers, each of which have dangerous passive abilities that restrict U/R's ability to play. It has plenty of resources with its burn spells, along with Arclight Phoenix as a potent threat to planeswalker loyalty. In these matchups Legion Warboss excels, especially when backed up by additional countermagic. I have a suspicion that best way to combat these decks is to overload on creatures and use Augur of Bolas, which with just 1 power is still quite threatening to planeswalkers. If you suspect Lyra Dawnbringer, a typical sideboard card in their toolbox and one that is tough to beat, preempting them with a copy of Beacon Bolt will shut it down for minimal opportunity cost in a deck with plenty of ways to discard it.
In my most recent match I came up against Bant Midrange, which with God-Eternal Oketra was quite threatening, but I was able to narrowly race it in the air with Crackling Drake and Arclight Phoenix. God-Eternal Oketra can be contained temporarily with burn, but will inevitably win the game, which it did in game two despite my Beacon Bolt buying many turns. Success in the matchup seems to require containing their creatures, most importantly Llanowar Elves and Wildgrowth Walker, and trying to kill them as fast as possible.
The matchup against Nexus of Fate or any true control deck like traditional Esper allows U/R Phoenix to flex its muscles as a combo deck, playing as fast and aggressively as possible. Particularly vulnerable to countermagic from the sideboard, these matchups should be favorable.
The Phoenix mirror revolves around Arclight Phoenix and Crackling Drake, so no card is more important than Lava Coil. Sideboard up to four copies and as much countermagic as possible. Beacon Bolt helps contain Crackling Drake, along with any potential Niv-Mizzet, Parun.
When I finally won my first PTQ, I did it with a Mind's Desire combo deck. It had the ability to mostly ignore what the opponent was doing and focus on its own game-winning plan, which I learned was an invaluable trait to look for in a deck. It allows a deck to survive in uncertain conditions, weather any storm, and push onward toward its own goals. Arclight Phoenix will always attack for a hasty and evasive 3 damage, and will keep doing it turn after turn in the face of removal. Crackling Drake will inevitably grow lethally large. The U/R Phoenix deck asks the opponent if they can beat that—hopefully this weekend my opponents will answer "No."