Last updated on July 21, 2021
Arclight Phoenix | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak
Sometimes it takes a while before players can pinpoint the best deck in the meta when new sets are released or a key card is banned. Or, more accurately, which deck has the highest win rate.
With the introduction of the Strixhaven Mystical Archives, we got some powerful tools for Historic. One in particular rises above all the others: Time Warp. Because it doesn’t get exiled after you cast it means that you can reuse it from the grave with cards like Mizzix’s Mastery to chain multiple turns in a row. Combine that with a chunky dragon (Velomachus Lorehold) that can cast Warp for free if you’re lucky and you end up in a spot where the game is over in just one (kind of) turn.
Unfortunately, this proved to be too much for the format. Time Warp was banned after a couple of months since more than half of the meta was using the same strategy. Even though the format has access to a lot of graveyard hate, it just wasn’t enough to stop the infamous Jeskai turns deck.
But I want to talk about a deck that’s gotten a lot of love from new sets and lost nothing to the latest bans. It’s probably considered the best deck in the Historic meta right now.
That’s right, I’m talking about Izzet Phoenix. Time to uncover all of its secrets for you!
Izzet Phoenix’s History
Sprite Dragon | Illustration by Gabor Szikszai
Izzet strategies have always been a bit left behind in Historic. They’re easily disrupted by the removal and discard spells that dominated previous metas. Jund Company was the deck to beat for a while, and it ran both.
Nothing has changed in that regard since Jund remains one of the top dogs in the room. Izzet Phoenix got quite the boost from Strixhaven with access to cards like Brainstorm, which sculpts your hand to “hide” your cards in response to your opponent targeting you with a discard spell. Plus, it’s very cheap.
That only covers the discard package, though. What about the removal that we still have to contend with? You usually tackle that by either running protection for your creatures or with recursion. The latter is the deck’s specialty with Arclight Phoenix entering the battlefield from the graveyard after you play just a few instants/sorceries, and Izzet Phoenix runs a lot of those.
This deck went up against the infamous Jeskai Turns to be Historic’s top dog, and it’s now king in a meta shaken by recent bans.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s cover the key cards and interactions from the deck.
This deck relies on attacking in the air and hits hard and fast. This list in particular also runs some recursion to never run out of cards and keep applying pressure at any point of the match.
In the early game, this deck pressures your opponent with Sprite Dragon by growing it with each noncreature spell that you cast. Since the deck runs over twenty 1-drop noncreature spells, this little guy can grow pretty big pretty fast, and that’s only one dragon. Imagine if you had two, three, or even all four out on the battlefield. Scary, right?
But, as awesome that is, it’s not enough in a format dominated by Fatal Push. This is where our next creature comes into play: Stormwing Entity. The Entity can not only dodge Fatal Push, but it can also come down as early as turn 3 thanks to its ability. It also has a very similar effect as our little Sprite and will hit your opponents for six damage every turn most of the time, if not even more.
That being said, this deck isn’t called “Stormy Dragons.” Izzet Phoenix’s name comes from its core card: Arclight Phoenix. The Phoenix on its own may feel like just a creature that can come back from the graveyard as an annoying threat. But if you pair it with Faithless Looting, you can threaten very explosive turns where you go from an empty field to quite a few flying, hasted Phoenixes on the board.
This card isn’t new, but Faithless Looting was needed to really make it shine. Returning one Phoenix is nice, but returning multiple at once is even better.
The Ox pairs up pretty well with all your spells, and it has exceptional synergy with Faithless Looting. You can discard it to then play it cheaper and quicker in the following turns. The Borrower is here to control the game’s tempo as it can deal with creatures that can’t be killed by your other removal spells. Last but not least, we have the Drake, which can get very large in the late game. It’s also not affected by any graveyard hate and it replaces itself.
Instants and Sorceries
Aside from the spells that tune your draws and fuel your graveyard, this deck’s card advantage comes from Expressive Iteration. It’s a 2-for-1 that can bring Phoenixes back from the graveyard, fuel your hand, and smooth your draws with free lands from your library. Iteration is also being used in Jeskai control decks, but its maximum potential is being exploited in Izzet Phoenix as it can also pump your other creatures very quickly.
I already mentioned this, but Faithless Looting plays a massive role in this deck. Izzet Phoenix may not even be playable in the current meta without it.
I’d advise holding your Lootings unless you need a specific answer against your opponents’ threat or if you have some Phoenixes in your hand. Remember that Looting doesn’t generate any value when it’s cast, so you need to know when to cast it to avoid wasting it. You also might want to mulligan hands with multiple copies. The main thing is not to use Looting without a plan.
Another card that’s very good at getting your Phoenixes back is Finale of Promise. It’s almost like it was made to do the job. Getting to play three spells from a single card is a fantastic ability. It can also trigger your other creatures’ abilities and basically acts like Overrun for almost of half the cost.
As for the rest of our noncreature spells, we can’t always count on our plans go smoothly. That’s why we run some interaction in the form of removal and a single counterspell in Mystical Dispute. It’s no coincidence that we use Pillar of Flame and Magma Spray. Not only are they very cheap, but they’re very powerful in a mirror matchup. They can also deal with some aggro strategies that run creatures with small toughness. As for the final piece, we run a couple Lightning Axes to deal with bigger creatures and discard our Phoenixes.
A last-minute addition I like a lot is Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. This planeswalker helps in both aggro and control matchups. Against the former, it holds back your opponent’s creatures while you kill them in the air. Against the latter, it works as a pseudo-Young Pyromancer that’s harder to kill.
As far as lands go, the deck runs a very smooth mana base. One main interaction you always need to have is Fabled Passage to “fix” your hand plus Brainstorm to shuffle cards you want to cycle out. Don’t hold Brainstorm for a Passage, but it’s an interaction that will come up more often than not.
As for the rest, try to always have a decent combination of blue and red mana in your starting hand. Prioritize blue as much as you can. This is the more important color for most of your spells. And don’t forget that you need double red for Finale of Promise, but don’t stress too much since we only run one copy.
Some interactions may be very intuitive, but some are a bit more difficult to spot if you haven’t played with the deck or haven’t seen it in action. Don’t worry, I’ll help you with those right off the bat!
- You can keep hands with only one land if you have at least two spells handy, but don’t count Faithless Looting unless you also have a Phoenix or two to discard.
- Brainstorm works particularly well with Stormwing Entity. You can Brainstorm first, make your Entity cheaper, and then scry a couple of cards with the Entity’s ability.
- Flashbacking Faithless Looting is way better than casting it from your hand. Since you’re not expending a card from your hand to cast it, you’re basically just filtering. So try to be aggressive when casting those from your graveyard if you have the mana.
- Most players try to develop board states to bring back Arclight Phoenix rather than playing a turn 2 Sprite Dragon. But you can punish opponents that don’t run tons of removal in game 1 by growing your Dragons in the early game.
- Remember that you can activate Sprite Dragon and Stormwing Entity at instant speed with your spells and potentially save them from damage-based removal. This is key if you know your opponent is running those.
Saheeli, Sublime Artificer | Illustration by Wesley Burt
One thing that’s particularly difficult for most players is making sideboard adjustments for games 2 and 3. Cards can vary depending on the play or on the draw, which is why I’ll try to cover the most common matchups you’ll face while trying to reach mythic this season.
Izzet Phoenix: Mirror Matchup
The mirror match may feel like a coin-flip most of the time, but we run most of our removal in the form of spells that exile your opponent’s creatures from the graveyard, so no Phoenixes are coming back from it. You want to try to pressure your opponent on the play. They’ll try to control your board with their removal on the draw and vice-versa, so keep your full hand if it’s not the worst draw ever. Remember that this is a resource-intensive deck. Every single piece of interaction counts in the mirror match, so try not to mulligan if you can help it.
Post-sideboard, Narset, Parter of Veils is huge as it can shut down half of the deck. But the big thing is that you replace situational removal and dead cards with interaction. If you’re on the draw, you can bring in one more Mystical Dispute instead of a Drake.
This is a matchup where you have the advantage in game 1, but you need to be very careful. If your opponent resolves Narset, Parter of Veils’ they can easily shut down half of your deck. Try to pressure them as much as you can, but don’t overspend as they run board wipes in game 1.
Post-sideboard the match evens out a bit. Your opponent is probably going to run Rest in Peace. You need to go wider than your opponent, and Saheeli, Sublime Artificer is great at that. If you’re going for the Phoenix plan, try to hold your cards until you can do everything in one turn. That way your opponent won’t be able to interact with your graveyard.
This can be a difficult match as they disrupt your main plan with cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Archon of Emeria. But they may have a tough time dealing with Stormwing Entity since a single spell can outclass every one of their flyers. We also have removal to deal with their cheap creatures and Brazen Borrower’s Petty Theft can deal with a resolved The Great Henge or whatever you can’t kill in a tough spot.
Your chances improve post-sideboard as you have access to board wipes and removal that can kill bigger creatures. Plus Aether Gust helps manage the tempo and is particularly great against Shifting Ceratops
Jund Food Sacrifice
Game 1, the match will be decided by whoever can assemble their combo first. Izzet Phoenix is quicker than Jund Food Sacrifice.
Post-sideboard they’ll bring discard package plus Klothys, God of Destiny, which can prove to be particularly annoying. Be careful to not overcommit to the graveyard. This match is favored for us, but good resource management is critical.
The plan against aggro decks is to manage the board’s tempo. This matchup is a race to deal the final few points of damage. Our main deck removal is great at dealing with their creatures and, more importantly, neither mono black nor Gruul aggro run tons of fliers to block our threats.
Post-sideboard, you want to smooth out your deck by getting rid of counters and adding more tempo cards.
Against Mono Black
Azorius and Orzhov Auras
This is a battle of who has more interaction in their initial hand. The auras decks are going to rely on enchanting one creature to protect it from removal. You can try to approach this matchup with the goal to kill their creatures first and then dealing tons of damage in the air since they don’t have many ways to block your creatures.
Their scariest card here is Kor Spiritdancer, so try to have an answer for it and bluff if needed by not tapping out so they don’t overspend.
This match is tilted in our favor as your opponent will help you get your Phoenixes and Oxen into the graveyard. You have the tools to beat their deck as long as you don’t get overrun by their aggro plan.
Other Cards to Try
As the meta changes, it’s good to have some other options that you can swap back and forth between your builds. Unlike the Rakdos Arcanist deck, Izzet Phoenix doesn’t have a lot of room for improvement. You’re basically just adding single copies of any given card to the main deck or the sideboard, depending on how the meta shifts.
Beacon Bolt is another good sideboard inclusion against aggro decks, mainly because you can recur it.
Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor
Entrancing Melody is a good option against aura decks which can usually grow their creatures beyond your removal range.
This was an entertaining deck to play. I now have no doubt that it’s the top deck in the current Historic meta. Even if they try to nerf it with a Brainstorm ban, the rest of the deck will remain. Other cards can fill Brainstorm’s slot, so it’s a solid investment to spend your wildcards here.
I hope you have as much fun as I did if you test Izzet Phoenix out for yourself. Don’t forget to let me know in the comments below how it performed for you and what changes you’d make to improve the build. Oh, and don’t forget to grab Arena Tutor if you’re planning on testing it out in MTGA. You’ll love it.
As always, take care and I’ll see you in the next one!