How to win the Phoenix mirror


In last week’s episode of the Phoenix Show, we covered a broad set of sideboard strategies, but after playing mirror after mirror last weekend where my opponents tried to “get” me with Spell Pierce, I realized that I have a lot more ground to cover. Let’s get to talking about the Phoenix mirror, and use this opportunity to go deep into some more general Modern sideboarding tips.

How does the mirror play out pre-board?

For the purpose of analysis, I’m going to try to isolate the crucial points in games — the turning points that cause a player to jump ahead — rather than discuss things on a point by point basis. What are the crucial interactions present in the maindeck Phoenix mirror that result in games ending, in one way or another?

I can identify two major players, with a third lagging a bit behind. Let’s call this order of importance the “threat priority.” The first, because it trumps the other gameplay sequences, is Thing in the Ice flipping. A huge life total swing combined with a body that’s nigh-un-killable in the maindeck that resets the board is the number one threat. It can be stopped, at least in the stock decks, only by one of the two Flame Slash or Lightning Axe, or by an opposing flipped Thing in the Ice. When two Awoken Horrors stare off, Gut Shot and Lightning Bolt become trump cards, but are otherwise weak in the matchup due to their inability to kill any non-recursive creatures.

Next is, of course, the recursion of Arclight Phoenix. With the introduction of maindeck Surgical Extraction, this angle of linear play is significantly less reliable in game one than it would have been in the past, but is obviously, well, still good. This plan gets reset in a huge way by a Thing in the Ice flipping, and should therefore be one step lower in priority. It’s also beaten by the aforementioned Surgical Extraction, or by an opponent being able to recur more Phoenixes than you on a following turn.

Last, but not least, are Crackling Drake, Pteramander and Pyromancer Ascension. The first two are threats of varying power. Drake is card advantage and hits like a house, but struggles to punch through the recursive power of Arclight or the tempo swing of a flipped Thing in the Ice. This means that the card shines significantly more in post-board games, where the two plans with higher priority are more easily shut down — but we’ll get to that eventually. Pteramander is a low-variance, low-cost, low-power beater that can’t close games as quickly as the other threats, and is only low-cost in a midgame situation in which you’ve already exhausted your spells and would probably prefer to play a Crackling Drake to go up on cards and kill faster. In short, Pteramander sucks in the mirror and you shouldn’t play it. Pyromancer Ascension, on the other hand, is an interesting one. At its best, it enables a combo turn where you can easily kill your opponent through anything, but at its worst, is an absolute blank that can’t even chump block. So long as Snapcaster Mage is the flex card of choice — as it should be — thanks to its ability to duplicate the answers to both of the highest-priority threats, the strange unbeatable threat of Pyromancer Ascension should have a home here, for its power in the mirror. I would recommend playing one.

So the two game actions most conducive to winning the mirror are the fourth spell being cast under Thing in the Ice, and a third spell being cast with Arclight Phoenix in the graveyard — or at least heading there upon resolution of that spell. This means that, so long as you know you’re playing the mirror, you should only be keeping hands contingent on their ability to either execute or disrupt these gameplans. For instance, if your hand’s threat is a Crackling Drake or, god forbid, a Pteramander, and it doesn’t have a Surgical Extraction, Flame Slash, or Lightning Axe, you’re unlikely to beat anything other than an equally terrible keep from your opponent, barring excellent draw steps. The deck’s high density of cantrips can of course bail you out of these situations, but relying on them can put you too far behind, especially on the draw.

How does the mirror play out post-board?

With the exception of rare sideboard Snapcasters and the incomprehensibly-popular Chandra, Torch of Defiance, there are rarely additional threats to be found post-board, and so the same pecking order should apply. This means that to build one’s sideboard for the Phoenix mirror, one would want, in order of importance, additional answers to the important threats, then threats that trump the priority in a significant way. That order is due to the continued, and inexplicable on a competitive basis, diversity of the Modern format, where adding power to our pseudo-linear deck is often less important than maxing out on answers for the true linear decks that continue to detract from my dream world of exclusively Steam Vents mirrors.

Notably absent from my sideboard priority is answers to an opponent’s answers. The stock sideboard plan, duplicated everywhere, includes two copies of Dispel and one or two copies of Spell Pierce in the mirror, both on the play and on the draw. I understand why people would want to do that — if you identify the crucial game actions that lead to victory and try to stop your opponent from disrupting you, then you would win every time, right? In doing so, however, you are introducing an additional level of variance into whether or not your spells will affect the outcome of the game.

Let’s look at this on a fundamental level, wherein we try to figure out whether or not our cards will be good in a given situation: threats are always good, because you always want to kill your opponent. Answers are good, but only when your opponent has a threat that you need to kill and you do not already have threats that trump it. Answers to your opponent’s answers are, in turn, only good when you have that meta-answer and the previous situation of an important threat being answered is currently taking place, in the narrow window when that spell is on the stack and you have open mana.

Given that the answers and meta-answers are, for the most part, trading one-for-one, and with the rare exceptions of the singleton planeswalkers, tempo-neutral, you’d rather play more copies of the answers, as the situation where they are impactful is more likely to come up. If you take this to its logical conclusion, one would want only threats, but the deckbuilding rules of Magic lock us out of playing more than four copies of Thing in the Ice, and as such, we must play some number of answers to gain an advantage in the threat priority. In short, counterspells are bad in the Phoenix mirror, and you should build your sideboard in such a way that you don’t bring them in. It should also go without saying, so long as you’re bringing in additional answers to Thing in the Ice, that Lightning Bolt has little to no significance in the post-board mirror, and is worse than a basic land.

Another common sideboard plan I have issue with is a reluctance to max out on Surgical Extractions. Post-board games will inevitably have a higher density of answers, inevitably slowing down the game and making it more likely for duplicates of individual threats to not only be drawn, but for the situation where they become relevant to take place. Using our knowledge of the threat priority, we can extrapolate from this that it would be beneficial not only to always have a Surgical on hand to prevent Phoenix recursion, but that it’s also good in a deck as threat-light as ours to also remove Thing in the Ice from the picture entirely after dealing with the first one, or sniping them off of our opponent’s Thought Scour or awkward Faithless Looting. A second, or even third Surgical is rarely that bad in the mirror, as it’s often good in the longer, grindier post-board games to take Faithless Lootings out of the equation.

I’ll leave you today with a slight update to my list, with the single Pyromancer Ascension added to the maindeck, and the fetchlands switched to Polluted Delta for maximum Death’s Shadow misdirection value. If you’re known in your local metagame for playing a different deck that features either Flooded Strand or Misty Rainforest, then one of those is probably optimal. Good luck!