Is Gruul Phoenix The Perfect Answer To Hogaak?

Abraham Stein returns with a look at what he’s missed in Magic! With Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis still towering over Modern, his Classic Top 8 finish with Gruul Phoenix points to a way out for the format!

Hey everybody! It’s good to be back!

It’s been about a month since I’ve had the chance to really engross myself in Magic, let alone get up here and spout my weekly nonsense about it, but with my hiatus at its end, let’s take a look at some quick hits and catch up on what I missed.

For starters, Bridge from Below got banned in Modern. Bridgevine proved to be too much of a menace on Modern to be allowed to stay and caught the axe, good riddance!

Next, in Worcester, with the release of Core Set 2020, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord proved me right and was the backbone of the only archetype to put two copies into the Top 8 of our Week 1 Standard Open. This doesn’t have a lot to do with anything else I’m going to talk about today, but when you call a shot, it’s just irresponsible to not at least point it out.

Finally, we got to see an incredibly diverse field of Modern decks show up as the SCG Tour stopped in Philadelphia, with everything from newcomers like Goblins and Grixis Urza to the old guard of Eldrazi Tron and Azorius Control on display. Shaheen Soorani and the rest of his team took home a trophy after Brainstorming his way to victory with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The music slowly faded as he rode off into the sunset, and Modern as a format was saved.

Now, if not for how many amazing players I knew who had fought their way to being qualified for Mythic Championship IV, I would have totally believed this to be the complete picture, but as this weekend’s events proved, it turns out Hogaak and I are, oddly enough, asking you the same question.

Did you miss me?

So far, the sentiment I’ve seen is that lots of people missed me, and almost nobody missed Hogaak, but that might have to do with how much power we present on Turn 2 on average, where I’m certainly beat.

As was demonstrated by the deck’s performance at the Mythic Championship and at the Modern Open in Columbus over the weekend, it looks like Modern is once again Hogaak’s world and we’re all just living in it. I hate to say it, but Hogaak seems to be the best choice for any given Modern tournament for the foreseeable future. However, just because it’s the best one, doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

Once I knew Hogaak was going to be the breakout deck of the weekend, I spent hours tirelessly trying new ideas that could get me to a Modern deck that met the following criteria that I think defines what is a good deck in the current format:

  • Good decks must be able to support playing good graveyard hate, like Leyline of the Void.
  • Good decks must be resilient to graveyard hate, because everyone will have it.
  • Good decks must have a proactive element to fight linear strategies, or be linear themselves.

After talking over and establishing these ground rules, it became obvious I was asking a lot and only a few Modern decks were left to choose from, namely Eldrazi Tron, Mono-Red Phoenix, and my dark horse, Mardu Pyromancers. Mardu might seem like a strange choice because of its reliance on Bedlam Reveler and in turn the graveyard, but I figured I could go around that by replacing them with copies of Seasoned Pyromancer. After doing my research and trying some things, I came to the following list:

Big disclaimer about this deck: it stank. There were a lot of cool things going on, namely how good Seasoned Pyromancer was at replacing Bedlam Reveler and how powerful Yawgmoth was with all the stray Elemental tokens. The problem was that beating a Leyline of the Void, or Chalice of the Void, or maybe even just the card Void, felt impossible.

Disappointed with the results of what felt like something promising, and with little time to go, I shrugged my shoulders and was lucky enough to convince Keith Capstick to lend me a complete copy of Hogaak on extremely short notice.

Without the boring details of my tournament, Keith and I both missed the cut for Day 2, so as he came to his senses about how good Hogaak was, I was on the lookout for a different Modern deck. Fortunately for me, that’s when I was struck with some Lotus Box patented Zan Syed genius.

Before he could even tell me about how he came to his innovations, I was already sold on how clean this deck looked. He had also identified that Bedlam Reveler was a liability in a format full of graveyard hate, but had gone a linear direction rather than an interactive one in finding Seasoned Pyromancer a home.

That wasn’t all, though. The addition of Wrenn and Six had entirely solved the issue I had with Mono-Red Phoenix against fair decks, the inability of the deck to fight through attrition. Specifically, in the case of Mono-Red Phoenix, often the only cards you have that you want to discard to Faithless Looting are Arclight Phoenix and excess lands because you’re relying on getting the most out of every spell you draw.

Normally, this isn’t an issue, but as games go long against decks like Jund, you find yourself wanting an extra land or two to do multiple things in a turn while casting a Faithless Looting from the graveyard, or you wind up empty-handed and not getting a lot out of a flashback. Wrenn and Six not only can become a means of drawing two cards a turn for Gruul Phoenix when the deck draws a Fiery Islet or Sunbaked Canyon, it also can just restock your hand with extra lands you have no need to play, allowing Faithless Looting or Seasoned Pyromancer to convert more often into the density of spells the deck needs.

Wrenn and Six accomplishes all of this while still being a Forked Bolt in a pinch and forcing decks like Azorius Control to take initiative or risk dying to Wrenn’s emblem. News Flash: Wrenn is obscenely good, and it’s better when the rest of your deck complements it rather than simply taking advantage of its face value like Jund does.

Over the course of the Modern Classic I was significantly impressed by how much better than a traditional Mono-Red Phoenix deck Gruul Phoenix felt. Most of my games I was cutting through my opponent like a hot knife through butter, even in the face of Leyline of the Voids, Chalice of the Voids, and Rest in Peace alike.

My sideboard plans I came up with for this list were as follows:

VS Hogaak



In this matchup, you’re a heavy underdog in Game 1 because unless you have some extremely fast Arclight Phoenix draws, you’re going to lose to a Hogaak at just about any point in the game. After sideboard, though, you’re at an advantage in any game where you both have Leyline of the Void pointed at each other. Needless to say, they need their graveyard more than you need yours, and you have better ways of playing a broken-down game of Magic.

Seasoned Pyromancer and Faithless Looting both help you mitigate the downside of drawing a Leyline in the midgame, and I often try to avoid casting Looting until I know I have cards I don’t want.

VS Eldrazi Tron



When deciding if I should keep my hand, I always try to assume they have Chalice of the Void or Leyline of the Void and determine if my hand is good enough against that. I try to spend my one-mana burn spells early to play around later Chalices and I am reluctant to throw spells away into Chalice with Seasoned Pyromancer in my deck unless I’m getting a really good return on the exchange. Karn, the Great Creator can be a huge thorn in your side, as you’re never too far from getting locked out of the game, so keep that in mind when you’re deciding how to allocate your damage.

VS Jund



Possibly the best matchup for the deck. I always try to assume I will get hit by a discard or removal spell on Turn 1 if my opponent keeps their first hand, and if my hand can’t beat that, I mulligan. This is a matchup where I often wind up casting Arclight Phoenix when they have a Leyline on the battlefield and letting it do most of the work, and I try to maximize my value with Faithless Looting and Pyromancer.

VS Humans



My approach to this matchup is to try to keep the battlefield relatively under control and land a Blood Moon, or simply ride a couple of one-drops to victory. If you don’t like the Blood Moon plan, it’s totally okay to bring in Shrine of Burning Rage as an answer to Auriok Champion or as a way to make up for trading spells for creatures. I also try to avoid being greedy and keeping hands that will lose to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or won’t cast a removal spell on Turn 2.

VS Mono-Red Phoenix



In the mirror match I often see players sideboard in copies of Surgical Extraction and I’m not a huge fan of that strategy. In general, the games come down to attrition of threats, and so I’m most concerned with making sure I can cast enough spells to return an Arclight Phoenix even while I’m trading my removal off aggressively. I tend to play these kinds of matchups very patiently, conserve my life total, and hold on to cards like Lava Spike for as long as I can.

VS Azorius Control



I think that in this matchup your creature draws are your best draws, and the hardest card to beat is Narset, Parter of Veils. I try not to get too invested in Shrine of Burning Rage unless I know I’m going to be able to leave up the activation for a while because of cards like Teferi, Time Raveler and Cryptic Command. If you see Monastery Mentor you should probably cut the last Lava Dart for a Flame Slash, just to make sure you don’t get caught without an answer.


Overall the only change I’ve thought about making to this list has been to turn Blood Moon into Alpine Moon with Mono-Green Tron taking down both major events on the weekend, just because it’s better on the draw. I could also see just forgoing Bedlam Reveler entirely or replacing one fetchland with a Fiery Islet, Sunbaked Canyon, or another Mountain. I’ve been extremely satisfied with the deck, and if you’re one of the many who can’t stand the idea of playing Hogaak mirrors and getting Leylined over and over again, I can’t recommend this deck highly enough.

I know we’ve all said it before, but Modern is set to be an amazingly cool format as soon as these busted Hogaak decks are dealt with, and right now we’re closer than ever to seeing all of that. Hogaak or No-gaak, I’d bet on Gruul Phoenix being one of the best decks that will continue to put up results long after this dark era of Modern comes to a close. We’ll just have to weather the storm first. Thankfully, decks like this are a beautiful silver lining that shows just what lies beyond the Arisen Necropolis in our path.