Over the course of the past month, the Pioneer metagame has changed a significant amount. This is largely due to the abundance of powerful cards from Wilds of Eldraine that were added to the format. Cards like Monstrous Rage in Boros Heroic and The Huntsman’s Redemption in Gruul midrange have not only had a major impact on their respective archetypes but have changed the landscape of the Pioneer format as a whole.
What used to be a format so heavily dominated by mono-green Devotion and Rakdos Midrange is starting to see some interesting archetypes starting to rise to the top. It seems like no deck has risen more in recent weeks than Izzet Phoenix, though. This deck has remained largely consistent and unchanged for a while. While the deck had solid matchups against many Creature-based decks like Spirits, combo decks like Lotus Field combo were tough to beat.
However, some new additions from Wilds of Eldraine have catapulted the deck up into the top echelon of decks. It’s no surprise that Sleight of Hand being added to Pioneer helped the deck gain some additional consistency. That being said, some players have had success changing the deck even further. The recent 452-player MTGO Pioneer Qualifier winning decklist, for example, showcased some really cool innovations. Is Izzet Phoenix going to continue to dominate? To help answer this question, let’s take a look at some of the core of the deck as well as some key changes that have helped shore up some of the deck’s weaknesses.
The goal of the Izzet Phoenix deck is to naturally get copies of Arclight Phoenix into your graveyard and cast the requisite number of spells to bring them back. As you might expect, this requires playing a lot of cheap Instants and Sorceries. What makes Arclight Phoenix such a strong card is that it is recursive. Even if the opponent uses removal on it, you can simply play three spells again and bring it back. This makes Arclight Phoenix an excellent blocker, and the combination of Flying and Haste makes it a solid attacker that can close the game relatively quickly as well.
The best way to make sure that you have enough spells to cast to reliably bring back Phoenix at any point in the game is by playing lots of cheap cantrips. Both Consider and Opt were utilized before Wilds of Eldraine, and now Sleight of Hand has joined the mix to add additional consistency. These cantrips also work well with Thing in the Ice, which can win games against Creature decks singlehandedly if unanswered.
From there, you need ways to get Arclight Phoenix in the graveyard and ways to stay alive in the interim. Lightning Axe helps play both roles nicely. Five damage is enough to kill problematic cards like Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, and being able to use Lightning Axe as a discard outlet for Phoenixes trapped in your hand is a big bonus. Beyond Lightning Axe, the deck also plays Fiery Impulse as additional cheap interaction.
One of the biggest omissions from Phoenix decks of the past is certainly Pieces of the Puzzle. Instead, this deck makes use of Picklock Prankster’s associated Adventure to help fill the graveyard. Picklock Prankster may only let you select one card instead of two to put into your hand, but there are a couple benefits to playing this solid uncommon Faerie in this archetype. The first is that this spell is more efficient. Pieces of the Puzzle, while powerful, was certainly a bit clunky. Against Creature decks, casting Pieces required you to take a whole turn off from using potential interaction, which could be problematic.
The second benefit to the card is that the Adventure is an Instant. This allows you to hold up interaction with the option of casting the Adventure, depending on what the opponent does. This includes Izzet Charm, which can be used to counter potential game-ending spells from the opponent, such as Storm the Festival out of mono-green Devotion or Enigmatic Incarnation out of Fires of Invention decks. Izzet Charm can also be used as a removal spell and a discard outlet for Phoenixes, making it quite a versatile card.
Finally, simply casting Picklock Prankster as a three-toughness Flier helps a lot at stemming the bleeding against aggressive decks. The goal of this version of the deck is to simply use cards that are as efficient as possible to fill their roles. This includes going as far as playing Otherworldly Gaze to help fill the graveyard quickly, despite technically being card disadvantage. The idea is that, while Gaze and Axe don’t help refuel your hand, playing four copies of Treasure Cruise is more than enough to make up for this. You even get to maximize Demilich as another recursive threat, letting you copy removal and cantrips from your graveyard when you attack.
Strengths and Weaknesses
When the Izzet Pheonix deck gets going, it can be very difficult for non-combo decks to stop. The combination of cheap removal, recursive Creatures, and Treasure Cruise to refuel gives Izzet Phoenix an edge against most Creature-based decks. That being said, there are still a few notable ways to fight against the archetype, which is by no means oppressive.
First off, if you want to disrupt the deck’s engine, playing graveyard hate cards like Rest in Peace is a good place to start. These types of cards make Arclight Phoenix and especially Treasure Cruise significantly worse, helping you play a fairer and grindy game against the deck that otherwise would be very difficult to win. Given that the deck goes as far as to play Otherworldly Gaze just to fill the graveyard and sculpt your draws, the deck is pretty reliant on Treasure Cruise to pull ahead.
Secondly, there are still combo decks like Lotus Field combo that can go way over the top. Izzet Pheonix’s removal spells are mostly dead, and the clock the deck presents is often too slow to effectively race you. Of course, Izzet Pheonix players will come prepared to try to fight through graveyard hate and combo decks in sideboarded games. Cards like Crackling Drake and Saheeli, Sublime Artificer provide alternate angles of attack that don’t require using the graveyard in any way. Further, Counterspells like Disdainful Stroke combined with Flash threats like Brazen Borrower may help the deck steal games against combo strategies. If you are looking to get into the Pioneer format, definitely make sure you come prepared with a gameplan for Izzet Phoenix, because the deck isn’t going anywhere.