There are few things in life more satisfying than casting three cantrips and putting an Arclight Phoenix onto the battlefield. After Faithless Looting was banned in Modern, I assumed those days were numbered. I never thought there would be a new format, Faithless Looting would somehow be legal, and a card like Dragon’s Rage Channeler or Unholy Heat would be printed.
A few weeks ago, I did some solid work laying the foundation for what would become of Izzet Phoenix in Historic. After a few days terrorizing the ladder, I have a list I’m very pleased with.
This is, without a doubt, the strongest incarnation of Izzet Phoenix has ever had, especially when compared to its respective format. It’s proactive. It has answers to nearly everything, good mana, and excellent sideboard pivots. It’s basically the perfect deck and there isn’t anything out there I mind playing against.
One of the main things worth noting is that I’m very aggressive with my surveils from Dragon’s Rage Channeler. I didn’t think it needed to be stressed until I watched people play the card far more conservatively than I would. I’ve noticed roughly the same thing with scry, although it’s less egregious than when you have DRC in your deck.
Keeping a card that is merely fine isn’t acceptable. You get paid numerous ways from putting cards into your graveyard, so there’s rarely a reason to keep a mediocre spell instead of digging deeper. In most situations, you’re digging for something specific like Unholy Heat, Expressive Iteration, Finale of Promise, or Crackling Drake. Unless it’s exactly what you need, you can do better. Each surveil also gets you closer to your next Arclight Phoenix and fills your graveyard for future Drakes and Finales.
Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. If you know you’ll have an extra mana next turn and see another DRC on top, maybe you can keep it to fill your curve. For me, the card needs to fill a specific role in order to justify keeping it. When in doubt, put it into the graveyard.
My threat package has remained the same. Stormwing Entity will continue to remain mediocre until we get Gut Shot, Manamorphose, or Gitaxian Probe. DRC is the perfect card to cement the threat package. Sprite Dragon is relatively cheap, has haste for that late-game burst, and occasionally makes for a solid blocker. I never want to draw two, which is why there are only three copies.
Overall, my suite of cantrips is interesting. I typically want my two-mana cantrip to set up for a potential Turn 3 Phoenix. Expressive Iteration might be the best card in Historic overall. Holding that title doesn’t mean you need to play four copies. I’ve tried versions of Izzet Phoenix with four copies and zero and tend to prefer playing zero. However, Expressive Iteration truly shines in the sideboard games. Izzet Phoenix typically moves away from its graveyard shenanigans in an attempt to play a more interactive game. Iteration lends itself well to those situations more than Chart a Course. Having DRC as a stronger standalone threat makes those gameplans more reliable, so playing some amount of Iterations seems correct.
Faithless Salvaging is very solid, despite only playing one copy. Since we’re still able to play with Faithless Looting, there’s very little need for Salvaging. Should that change, Salvaging would be a perfectly fine replacement for what this deck is trying to do. I’ve tried various Mono-Red Phoenix decks in Historic and Faithless Salvaging is incredible there. Without access to additional discard outlets like Chart a Course, you need some help and Salvaging is perfect for the role. It’s the second-best Faithless Looting, which means it sometimes makes the cut when you want more than four copies.
Playing a mix of Chart a Course and Faithless Salvaging seems best, despite both cards accomplishing similar goals. In the late-game, both cards have the capability of being a draw two, although Chart a Course does that more reliably. That said, Faithless Salvaging contributes to returning Arclight Phoenix on Turn 3 thanks to adding to the spell count for zero mana, which Chart a Course can’t do.
Finale of Promise is still the best top-end and I could see returning to three copies. Oddly, the introduction of Unholy Heat made the card worse because there are fewer sorceries to flash back. One of the changes I’m leaning toward making is ditching Lightning Axe for a third Pillar of Flame, just for that reason. Casting a Finale for two removal spells is one of the best ways to stabilize against decks like Elves, so I would want to lean into that if possible.
Obviously, I’m not happy about playing Soul-Guide Lantern in my Arclight Phoenix deck. Putting together three one-mana cantrips on Turn 3 can be difficult and the Lanterns replaced some very reasonable copies of Warlord’s Fury. Once we have Consider, we’ll probably have to readjust. That said, it kinda works out. You get another card type for delirium and a major edge against other DRC decks. There are also plenty of other decks that use the graveyard and Lantern can always cycle, so it’s never dead.
One of the issues with the current iteration of the deck is that your cards are too good! There are few cards you’re happy to discard to Faithless Looting, so you’ll typically be holding it until you’re able to piece it together with a Phoenix or are in a dire situation. I’m unsure if that means I should be playing something like Ox of Agonas or Fiery Temper as another card I’m happy to discard.
Maybe there’s a version with Faithless Looting, Faithless Salvaging, and Fiery Temper? That could pair well with Hollow One, which also gives you another artifact. Fiery Temper has shown up in Pioneer Izzet Phoenix decks from time to time and their discard outlets aren’t nearly as powerful as Historic’s. Then again, their removal options are similarly pitiful, meaning Fiery Temper was somewhat of a necessity.
My manabase is relatively boring, despite there being plenty of options for creativity. Creature-lands are certainly a consideration. Den of the Bugbear and Hall of Storm Giants are both solid, although if your deck is working, you’re using all your mana each turn. I wouldn’t mind adding a 22nd land in order to facilitate more opening hands that are keepable. If I do, adding a creature-land or two would be a fine compromise.
There are concerns about entering the battlefield tapped and we already have Spirebluff Canal causing that problem sometimes. We’re ultimately trying to win with damage and decks with sweepers can be difficult, so it would probably be a good change to make. With so much card filtering, I usually only have to mulligan hands with mana issues, so having more lands rather than fewer makes sense. If I go that route, I’d certainly remove the Sulfur Falls.
Many people assume you want Fabled Passage to help enable delirium. There’s no shortage of ways to get lands into the graveyard and Fabled Passage wasn’t something I wanted in my deck when I had Brainstorm. DRC furthers the necessity for early untapped lands, so Fabled Passage isn’t something I want.
VS Izzet Phoenix
I’ve had folks bring in Mystical Dispute against me, but for what? Maybe you tag a Narset, Parter of Veils or Crackling Drake, but it’s far more likely they have to use it on an Opt at some point. At the end of the day, it’s not something I would recommend. I prefer to take game actions on my turns when I have the option.
VS Rakdos Midrange (Lurrus)
Depending on their version, I’ve also brought in Narset. For the most part, your card drawing beats their discard spells, but having more card drawing is a benefit as long as they aren’t too threat-dense. They’ll also have graveyard hate, except it’s far more potent against them than it is against you.
VS Azorius Control
I love these matchups. Let your early creatures die, keep their planeswalkers off the battlefield, and eventually chain together some card drawing to pull ahead. You’ll eventually win the game with Arclight Phoenix or Crackling Drake.
Brazen Borrower is in my deck mostly for Shark Typhoon. As such, it should probably be the last threat you deploy. If your opponent is playing Jeskai Control, very little changes unless they also have a Mizzix’s Mastery package. When that’s the case, keep in some graveyard interaction.
You sideboard similarly against the Indomitable Creativity decks. That matchup is an argument for more Memory Lapses instead of the Mystical Disputes, plus you could make a case for wanting more countermagic in general.
VS Gruul Aggro
As always, the plan against aggro decks is to cast a couple of removal spells and stabilize behind Phoenixes or a Crackling Drake. Racing isn’t usually an option, so trade away as often as possible. If they have multiple Embercleaves, you should also bring in Prismari Command.
VS Artifact Aggro
Overall, these decks have looked impressive, so I wouldn’t be surprised if their metagame share ticks up. If that’s the case, you might want another Prismari Command in the sideboard. Nettlecyst is certainly a problem and might be enough of a reason to want Brazen Borrowers.
VS Five-Color Niv-Mizzet (Jegantha)
Niv-Mizzet decks occasionally see a spike in popularity; otherwise I wouldn’t even bother including the deck in my sideboarding guide. It has potential and could eventually end up being a real player with some new prints. Perhaps Territorial Kavu is enough to get it there.
VS Jund Sacrifice (Jegantha)
Collected Company is always scary but that’s the only thing they have going for them.
VS Vesperlark Combo
I’m not sure how real these decks are. One of my opponents assembled an infinite life loop and I wanted to see what was possible within Arena, so I let them play it out. As it turns out, it took a while, they went up to 70 life, roped out, and died to Crackling Drake. If it comes up again when I’m playing on ladder, I’ll concede, but I had to find out so I could report here. Now you know and what you do with that information is up to you.
VS Orzhov/Azorius Auras (Lurrus)
Similarly to the Gruul Aggro matchup, racing is difficult. Stop them from getting traction and nickel and dime them to death.
Given how often I take out cards like Lightning Axe and Brazen Borrower, it might not seem like either is worth playing maindeck. For the most part, they’re used to cover potential weaknesses. Unholy Heat solves some of those issues but you typically need more answers against big creatures rather than fewer. If you want to add something else, those are the slots to play with. As I mentioned, I’ll probably be trying another land and Pillar of Flame in those slots and see how it feels.
The sideboard is also customizable. I like everything I have, they’re all useful, and my sideboard plans make sense. However, those plans will likely have to change once the format solidifies. I hesitate to say anything is set in stone.
Even if you don’t agree with my card choices or sideboarding strategies, you have to agree that Izzet Phoenix is one of the best decks in Historic, if not the best. There are very few clear weaknesses and any potential issue that arises is solvable. Enjoy it while it lasts.