Strong-Arming Modern – Playing Arclight Phoenix
With all the local Magic Fest main events being Modern this year, a lot of players have been working on constructing a Modern deck, and Arclight Phoenix was the first choice for a lot of them. The most common variant is the Izzet build popularized by Ross Meriam, followed by mono red variants which are a much better budget option. Finally, the newer Temur build from Ryan Overturf who won the SCG Team Open in Baltimore a few weeks ago has recently risen in popularity. Today I am going to explore all three builds, and comment on the options available to them.
The Temur build and the Izzet build play out pretty similarly in gameplan. They both play Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix as their primary win conditions. The key difference between the two is that the Izzet lists play a few more cantrips alongside Pteramander in the maindeck, while the Temur list plays 4 Mishra’s Bauble and 4 Traverse the Ulvenwald to help guarantee that you can bring back 2 Phoenixes at a time. The Temur build, in my experience, is better at winning with Phoenixes while the Izzet build is better at flipping Thing in the Ice, as well as being able to play a few more threats—meaning it is a bit better at beating removal.
The mono Red build of the deck plays a lot more like a burn deck. This is the only version of Phoenix that I don’t have experience playing with (I’ve only played against it), so I don’t know how it compares to traditional Burn. This deck should theoretically have a faster clock than the Thing in the Ice builds of the deck, but has a worse creature matchup for decks like Spirits or Humans. The mono red deck is trying to kill as fast as possible, so if your opponent can stop your first wave of creatures you are mostly hoping to finish the game with burn spells, because you aren’t playing cantrips like the blue versions so once you have used up your hand to bring back Phoenixes, you’ll be pretty much out of gas. The deck used to have only Bedlam Reveler as card advantage, but it recently picked up Light Up the Stage with Ravnica Allegiance as a way to help with this issue.
Main Deck Options
Cards like Manamorphose and Phyrexian-mana spells allow you to flip Thing in the Ice and attack with it as early as turn 3, allowing for a reset against humans, spirits and other creature-based decks. This is one of the best ways to out tempo your opponent in a deck that plays little to no removal.
Phoenix is the namesake card for the archetype for a reason. It is a lot easier to cast 3 spells in a turn in Modern than in Standard, and with Manamorphose and Phyrexian spells you can bring back Phoenixes as early as turn 2 and start attacking.
Crackling Drake has dropped off a bit recently with the release of Pteramander, but it is much better against graveyard hate like Rest in Peace, which people often bring in to cut off the early Phoenix win.
Young Pyromancer is another card that has dropped off with the release of Pteramander, but it is still a decent choice if you are worried about Rest in Peace or need to go wide against a metagame of decks like Jund.
Non Creature Spells
Both of these fill a similar roll. They are both free spells that can enable the 3rd spell to bring back Phoenixes or 4th to flip a Thing in the Ice when your opponent’s don’t expect it. Surgical Extraction started off as just a sideboard card, but with Dredge and opposing Phoenix decks being heavily represented decks, some lists have started to cut Gut Shots from the main deck in favor of Surgical Extraction. This also has the added benefit of freeing up sideboard space.
Faithless Looting is probably the most important spell in the deck—and one of the best cards in the format. Keep in mind that you want to play other card draw spells before Looting in order to make sure you have the highest chance of discarding Phoenixes.
One of the best blue cantrips for the deck, as it gives 2 extra chances at milling Phoenix early. Being instant speed is also nice, since it can flip Thing in the Ice on your opponent’s turn if you need to be defensive.
All of these act as extra blue cantrips and all server a similar purpose—finding what you need for cheap. Serum Visions is a 4 of in almost every Izzet list while the others vary in number.
Bolt continues to be a 4-of in every version of the deck. This has been one of the most played cards in Modern forever, because it’s just that good.
Lightning Axe is a removal spell that is also a discard outlet for Arclight Phoenix. 5 damage will kill most things in Modern that you care about (Scavenging Ooze, opposing Thing in the Ice, anything from Spirits or Humans), meaning that you’ll likely want some number in your 75.
This is a “free” spell that also functions as mana fixing. Along with Phyrexian spells, this can allow you to flip Thing in the Ice or bring back Arclight Phoenixes earlier than your opponent’s may expect.
Izzet Charm sometimes sees play as a 1 of in the Izzet lists because it adds a bit of versatility as a main deck counterspell, while also functioning as a removal spell or an additional another discard outlet. The downside is that it is 2 mana, making it hard to use on the early turns where you are trying to bring back Arclight Phoenix.
This card allows for the deck to be more explosive on your combo turn, but requires you to take an extra turn off before doing so. It also makes you more vulnerable to graveyard hate, meaning that it is almost always a trap.
Cards Specific to Mono Red Variants:
This is only played in the mono red version nowadays, but it also saw a bit of play in the Izzet version when the deck was new. In the mono red version of the deck, this card can easily attack for 4+ damage on turn 2 thanks to Desperate Ritual, Manamorphose, and the Phyrexian spells.
If you could play 6 Swiftspears I’m sure the deck would, but Soul-Scar Mage is the next best thing. You miss out on 1 point of damage on turn one, but it can still hit for 4 on turn 2, which is nothing to scoff at.
Bedlam Reveler is everything you need to refuel the mono red deck, as it lacks the cantrips blue has access to.
Serves a similar role to Manamorphose, but instead of drawing a card it ramps you, allowing you to play even more spells in one turn. This means you’ll be getting more prowess triggers from your Monastery Swiftspears, Soul-Scar Mages, and Bedlam Revelers, so you can close the game quickly.
These each act as Lightning Bolts number 5-8, though some versions have experimented with more. Fiery Temper is essentially a free card if you can cast it for it’s madness cost every time, which can act as a pseudo-card advantage spell in match ups where it matters.
This is the newest card for the mono red deck, and it adds much needed card advantage while helping you to be more explosive early on. You can even cast it a turn early to make sure you have the cards to go off next turn.
Cards Specific to the Temur Variant:
This doesn’t see play in most versions, but the Temur version plays it as a 1-of to search off of Traverse the Ulvenwald so that you can finish close games with Bolt.
This card allows you to search out Phoenixes and increases the chances your Faithless Lootings will discard two Phoenixes. It’s pretty easy to get a land, instant, and sorcery in the graveyard. The last card type is often the hardest to find, which will either be a creature or a Mishra’s Bauble to turn on delirium.
The delayed draw can sometimes postpone you combo turn in the Temur build, but turning on Traverse the Ulvenwalds makes your combo turn more explosive, which usually makes up for the delay.
As explained earlier, the Phyrexian spells are really good in this deck. Not only is Surgical a free spell for comboing, it also acts as graveyard hate for your opponents and protection from their Surgical Extractions in a pinch, since you can target the same card they do and choose not to exile anything other than their initial target.
Artifact destruction and removal spell in one. Pretty straight forward—if you need it, you need it.
Spell Pierce counters a few more things than Dispel, but gets worse in long games. Countering a difficult to interact with removal spell (ie, Liliana of the Veil) can allow for massive swings with Thing in the Ice that often will end the game on the spot, but you’ll need to weigh that against the downside of effectively being dead when drawn late.
Anger of the Gods is one of the best cards you can have against Dredge and also good vs other creature matchups like Spirits and Humans.
One of the nice things about playing so many cantrips is you don’t have to play too many of these to have the effect you want. Blood Moon can just give you free wins against decks that aren’t prepared for it.
This is possibly the best card you could have against Tron. If you can counter their threats or Oblivion Stones for a turn or two, that should be enough time for you to close out a game or find a Blood Moon to slow them down enough.
In Izzet or mono Red this is one of the only options you have against Burn other than the counterspells listed above, and it usually buys you enough time to swing the game in your favor.
Big Bolt is for when you need to kill something that Lightning Axe can’t deal with. I haven’t found a situation where this feels necessary yet, but I’ve seen some lists siding it.
With main decks moving more towards Pteramander, some people have opted to play this in the sideboard to go wide against decks like Jund. It’s very narrow to me, but a solid option if that’s what you want to do.
This is the best artifact removal available—but you have to play a green shockland to play it effectively, which is a bigger cost that you would expect in a format as fast as Modern.
Shatterstorm is too expensive for most matchups, but if the 4c prison deck gets more popular this is one of the few cards that can answer the locks they get to.
Sideboard Cards specific to Temur
Macabre is graveyard hate searchable by Traverse the Ulvenwald, which is cute but can be slow.
A searchable Blood Moon. Literally.
Sideboard Cards Specific to Mono Red
Shrine allows for a bit better late game in a variant of the deck that usually lacks that, but it is dead early on.
Eidolon hurts you a lot too, but you will use up your hand faster than most opponents will, at which point playing this card can lock them out of the game.
Because of the lack of cantrips in mono red, you often end up playing empty handed in the late game, which is where Hazoret shines.
Surgical isn’t cheap and these are both reasonable graveyard hate options. They aren’t nearly as good in the mirror, but will get the job done vs. Dredge.
I will be playing a variant of Arclight Phoenix for Magic Fest Los Angeles and am currently debating between Izzet and Temur. I enjoy the play patterns of Temur but the ability to flip Thing in the Ice more consistently is also extremely appealing, and Izzet is certainly better at that. If you are interested in Modern, the mono-red version of Phoenix is a great choice to get into the format. It’s a powerful deck coming in at a price point of $300, which is below many Standard decks right now. Plus, you may already have the Phoenixes from Standard, which will save you about $100 off the bat. What will you guys be playing for Magic Fest Los Angeles?
~ Sean Armstrong