Modern is in a strange place right now.
Being the Standard player at SCG Richmond this past weekend, I watched several matches of Modern. My teammate was battling with Hogaak, and the various iterations on the deck are considered to be a tier above the next most powerful option for Modern at the moment. Graveyard hate is absolutely rampant and the amount of aggressive mulliganing I saw this past weekend was startling at first. When I thought about it a bit more, it made perfect sense, though. The sideboard cards to hose the graveyard decks and their answers, often the sideboard cards from the graveyard decks, have by far the highest impact on the game of any cards in either 75. Aggressively mulliganing to find them is a smart move.
So, this is, of course, occurring in the context of 75 card decks in tournament Magic. The format is shifting to accommodate the Hogaak menace. You’re seeing sideboards filled with hate cards and counter-hate. Linear strategies that don’t get absolutely ruined by the popular hate are incredibly attractive at the moment. Drew Miles, one-third of the winning SCG Richmond team, chose Mono-Red Phoenix as his deck for the event.
- 4 Lightning Bolt
- 4 Lava Spike
- 3 Lava Dart
- 4 Manamorphose
- 1 Forked Bolt
- 3 Gut Shot
- 4 Faithless Looting
- 4 Light Up the Stage
- 1 Finale of Promise
Mono-Red Phoenix is a great choice in this Hogaak-riddled world because it has a few different ways to attack the opponent. This helps to mitigate the impact of sideboard cards like Leyline of the Void. The deck plays plenty of removal and can one-for-one efficiently and get back an Arclight Phoenix or two, functioning almost like a control deck in these games, with Bedlam Reveler doing a great job of refueling in these attrition-based games.
Mono-Red Phoenix can also function like a Burn deck.
The copies of these five cards provide the removal and reach for the deck. They’re the support that allows the deck to function as an attrition-based grindy deck. They’re also the way that Mono-Red Phoenix can act like a relatively uninteractive Burn deck. The latter role is also facilitated by the following creature suite:
The creature suite is both powerful and flexible while also being efficiently costed. Bedlam Reveler also plays a powerful role, but it’s mostly as a card advantage engine against removal-heavy strategies or in otherwise interactive matchups. The creatures pictured above allow Mono-Red Phoenix to go under many decks. This is the second way Mono-Red Phoenix can attack opponents and is one of the reasons why the deck has value even while Izzet Phoenix exists.
Izzet Phoenix is a more powerful deck on paper, but the deck tends to be a little slow most of the time. Mono-Red Phoenix has a lower ceiling but is more consistent. This might not seem like it’s a good thing in a format as powerful and polarizing as Modern, but in a world with a ton of game-ending sideboard cards and non-games, there’s a value to being able to function almost every game.
This is one of the huge draws to Mono-Red Phoenix– an Arclight Phoenix and a prowess creature can deal a lot of damage in the first few turns. This deck is great at punishing stumbles because it rarely loses to its own mana and has several ways to insure the pilot against mana flood. While the deck might not flat-out win by Turn 4, it will be able to deal some damage and then be able to set itself up to have a wealth of topdecks to win the game in subsequent turns. Mono-Red Phoenix may almost always lose to the best draws from the best decks, but it excels at beating stumbles and rarely gets worse in sideboard games, while almost every other deck gets worse when the opponent has access to a sideboard.
Manamorphose and Faithless Looting comprise the combo-oriented part of the deck. They facilitate your most broken draws and allow you to attack with a 3/4 prowess creature and an Arclight Phoenix on Turn 2. Multiple Gut Shots and Lava Darts also add to the critical mass of cheap spells and they make it much easier to have three spells on Turn 2 and virtually guarantee three spells on Turn 3. This angle of attack most resembles a combo deck, and when the deck must do something broken, these cards can help push it over the top. Manamorphose and Faithless Looting are usually the ones making the messed-up draws happen, but the cheap burn spells also can help clear the way.
Getting rid of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben without setting yourself back multiple turns is also an important function of Gut Shot. For this reason, it might be smart to not cast your one-drop on the draw when they appear to be playing Humans, as you might lose a point or two from your creature, but you’ll get to have a busted Turn 2 unimpeded. This mostly holds true when you have some combination of Manamorphose, Faithless Looting, and Arclight Phoenix because “going off” with those cards is so much better on Turn 2 than Turn 3. If your hand just has some creatures and removal, it’s probably fine to cast the creature on Turn 1. Gut Shot is the only way you can kill Thalia on curve, so it’s worth considering the situations where the “on curve” part of that statement is relevant.
One other luxury that Lightning Bolt, Gut Shot, and Lava Dart can afford you is the ability to kill a Satyr Wayfinder with the enters-the-battlefield trigger on the stack. This can push their casting of Hogaak back by a full turn, sometimes two. Lots of your games are close races, especially in that matchup, so being able to delay the 8/8 a turn is super-relevant.
I’m a fan of the way Drew Miles has constructed his sideboard. Because I haven’t played much with his list, I feel more comfortable doing a breakdown than I do giving a full matchup-by-matchup sideboard guide.
Burn is one of the tougher matchups for Mono-Red Phoenix, as Eidolon of the Great Revel is one of the best cards against the deck. There are a few answers to it in the list, but Dragon’s Claw is a nice way to offset the damage dealt by Eidolon, provided that you can’t kill it. Dragon’s Claw is obviously great against almost every draw Burn has, and you’re also mono-red, so you’re gaining double the life in this particular matchup. Dragon’s Claw also slots in nicely in the mirror where, in addition to triggering prowess for your creatures, it effectively removes prowess from all of their creatures and makes their burn spells dramatically worse.
While being worse than Leyline of the Void against Hogaak specifically, Tormod’s Crypt does a great job of slowing down graveyard decks. Because you’re capable of aggressive draws and are a relatively consistent proactive deck, there’s no real need for your graveyard hate to be absolute. Tormod’s Crypt is free, triggers prowess, and has applications against a wide range of graveyard decks. The prevalence of Hogaak makes Surgical Extraction one of the less attractive graveyard hate cards at the moment, but if a Hogaak ban were to occur, I imagine Surgical would resurge in popularity.
Sideboarding Tormod’s Crypt in against the mirror or Izzet Phoenix is probably right but feels medium. Surgical is also free, but virtually guarantees you can tag all their Phoenixes or break up a Finale of Promise. Crypt does stop the entire Finale but usually only gets one Phoenix and one Looting. Now, like I said above, the nature of your deck is such that you don’t have to have your graveyard hate cards be super-“hard” in the abstract, but if you bring them in against the mirror, they have to do something to justify the cost.
Kozilek’s Return only kills your Arclight Phoenixes, so it’s a great choice to bring in against other creature decks, since prowess keeps all your one drops alive. Kozilek’s Return is the only realistic answer to Auriok Champion, one of the best possible sideboard cards against Mono-Red Phoenix, but you’re also probably supposed to sideboard the card in against Hogaak, since the small cheap creatures are very important to the deck’s function. Backing up an aggressive start with Kozilek’s Return won’t stop Hogaak completely but might slow them down enough that you can push through the last points before they get off the ground. There’s an argument for bringing this card in against other Arclight Phoenix decks to erase the damage from their Phoenix attack, but that’s incredibly reactive and probably not efficient enough.
Flame Slash is a great removal spell for some of the bigger creatures you might face. It’s fantastic against Humans and, besides the narrow Rending Volley, is the best answer to Thing in the Ice. Flame Slash also comes in against Jund so you can kill a bigger Scavenging Ooze or a smaller Tarmogoyf.
Abrade and Shattering Spree are how we will kill any of the problematic artifacts the format can throw at us. The two most relevant ones are Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge. Abrade also has fantastic utility against Humans because it can kill most of their creatures as well as Aether Vial. Shattering Spree can kill a Chalice of the Void on one because the replicate copies don’t go on the stack and can’t be countered by Chalice triggers. These cards will shine against Hardened Scales and Four-Color Urza as well as the aforementioned Chalice decks.
Modern is on display this weekend at MagicFest Las Vegas. It’ll be interesting to see what shakes to the top at the event that could be Hogaak’s swan song. I think Mono-Red Phoenix is a great choice for the weekend, and in the event of a ban on August 26th, Mono-Red Phoenix still has a fair share of good matchups and the deck can easily change a few cards to adapt to the new metagame. SCG Dallas is just over a week away and that tournament is also a great one to sleeve up some Phoenixes and good old basic Mountains, whether you’ll be staring at free 8/8s across the table or not.