Before we jump into the meat of today’s content, I have a bit of a history lesson for you.
I’ve dredged deep into the archives of Splinter Twin decklists to remind you that there was a time, a dark, dark time when Twin did not yet play Snapcaster Mage. An unenlightened era, where the slots eventually dedicated to the erstwhile Wizard played host to unplayables like Spellskite and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. There was a fanatical devotion to the combo finish, with no attention being paid to the powerful tempo advantage generated by the threat of infinite Deceiver Exarchs. Of course, the format was different at its inception, and Twin had to fight against other explosive combo decks, like Blazing Shoal Infect and Cloudpost plus Through the Breach. Eventually, powerful cards from those combo decks were banned, and more reactive strategies, often backed up by the ever-versatile Thoughtseize, populated the new metagame. Twin, of course, had to adjust.
This extremely-forced allegory aside, we’re facing a similar metagame shift with a different Steam Vents deck in our hands. Krark-Clan Ironworks is banned, in a violent act of repression to union power, and all of a sudden Thoughtseize decks like Death’s Shadow and Jund variants are reclaiming their vaunted position in the metagame. For the past while, Tarmogoyf aficionados were shamed into picking their favourite linear deck and leaving their Scavenging Oozes behind, as it was simply common knowledge that Modern in the KCI era was no longer hospitable to reactive decks. While things, of course, are always in flux, and it’s hard to say what even the next weekend will bring us, so far as innovations go (Kanister’s new Grinding Station deck comes to mind), it’s safe to say that Modern is slowing down.
As recently as a few weeks ago, I was advocating pretty hard for the inclusion of Kiln Fiend in the flex threat slot in Izzet Phoenix, thanks to its incredible power against the linear decks crowding the metagame. Things have changed, and it’s time for us to take a step back and see how we can solve the problems currently facing our deck. Let’s start with the list I played at GP Toronto, featuring a very questionable split of threats:
Izzet Phoenix – Daniel Fournier
I would say, after the fact, that this list was loosely halfway to where it needed to be for this given event. I had identified successfully that Burn was a difficult and frequent matchup and had a fairly coherent plan, albeit one that came up a bit short: max out on removal for Eidolon of the Great Revel and have a couple counterspells for those last, crucial burn spells. My results were mixed on the weekend, and revealing several Surgical Extractions to turn-one Goblin Guide left me feeling like I was doing something fundamentally wrong. Otherwise, I played against a dearth of decks against which Kiln Fiend was anything other than an enticing target for stray Lightning Bolts.
After gorging myself on Korean fried chicken and green apple soju, I made my way home and saw this tweet:
— Alex Bianchi (@Gemmanite) February 10, 2019
“Snapcaster was great.”
No words more appealing to my Magic sensibilities have ever been spoken. While famed Toronto grinder Omar Beldon was splashing white for Rest for the Weary (as well as Path to Exile) in Phoenix, I had dismissed the “splash shocklands for lifegain” strategy to be extremely stupid on a fundamental and obvious level. Life Goes On, however, is a significantly more efficient spell than Rest for the Weary. Thinking back on my matches against Burn over the course of the weekend, I realized just how easily the gain-eight can fit into our play patterns in the matchup. We’re frequently killing creatures in early turns, and at its absolute worst, it’s Dispel, gain one life.
So here we are. The more I think about Snapcaster, the more I want to maximize its strength in this deck. Repeating spells like Lightning Bolt has always been outstanding in Modern, and as more and more of our increasingly powerful sideboard cards become exceptional Snapcaster targets, the card just seems to improve and improve. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a Thing in the Ice flip bounce your Snapcaster, but it’s the closest I’ve come to Remanding my own Pestermite in response to a Cryptic Command on my opponent’s end step in a long time. It’s downright sinful.
Izzet Phoenix – Daniel Fournier
Let’s go over the peculiarities of my decklist, then go over some sideboard plans for the popular matchups that the sideboard is built to deal with.
3 Island, 1 Mountain
Many versions of this deck run fewer than three basic Islands, which, despite my clear bias for the card, is almost certainly a mistake. Not only do we have a lot to do with blue mana, but it’s important to remember that we’re a Blood Moon deck in many matchups. Leaning on Manamorphose to be able to cast our spells isn’t a happy place to be in, especially given that Blood Moon is part of our strategy in several grindy matchups.
In the stock (read: zero to one Snapcaster Mage) versions of this deck, Sleight of Hand is a sl(e)ightly better card than Opt. They do almost exactly the same thing, except Sleight gives you information about both of the cards you might draw, rather than just one. In a deck that wants to mainphase its cantrips in case of an Arclight Phoenix recursion, Opt being an instant is more or less irrelevant. However, with a bunch of Snapcasters in the deck, having instant speed cantrips becomes significantly more valuable.
It’s hard to figure out which one of these two cards is better on average. Flame Slash is much better with Snapcaster, while Lightning Axe is obviously much better with a Phoenix stranded in hand. As we slow down and become less combo-focused, Flame Slash goes up in value, but having a certain number of discard outlets is always important. For now, I’m sticking with a split, but I could be convinced to go either way in the future.
After a bunch of matches with maindeck Surgical, I’m very certain that Gut Shot is a superior card in this deck, but the ability to play a 16-card sideboard is more than worth the marginal downgrade in maindeck Phyrexian mana card quality.
This card is disgustingly good against Thoughtseize decks and one of the only reasonable yet powerful answers to cards like Tarmogoyf and Gurmag Angler. It’s non-conventional and it’s clunky, but it does something powerful and unique.
Versus Grixis Shadow
In: 2 Blood Moon, 1 Young Pyromancer, 1 Beacon Bolt
Out: 2 Gut Shot, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Flame Slash
We’re okay cutting some Phyrexian mana spells in this matchup, as we can safely expect our “flip Thing in the Ice on turn three” plan to be adequately disrupted. I don’t think this is a great matchup, but they can struggle a lot with multiple Phoenixes, so long as we’re not overwhelmed by a trampling, double-striking Death’s Shadow. We want to bring in our grindy matchup threats as well as the techy Beacon Bolt to deal with pesky creatures.
Versus the mirror
In: 2 Surgical Extraction, 1 Beacon Bolt
Out: 2 Gut Shot, 1 Lightning Bolt
It’s hard to really sideboard very much for this mirror match, as the only cards that really matter are Arclight Phoenix and Thing in the Ice. Keep your opponent from being able to flip the Horror, and try to stick a Surgical in response to the triggers. Remember that if you have multiple Phoenixes in your yard, you can use your own Surgicals to protect the duplicates from your opponent’s. As an added bonus, you get to feel like you have a very large brain when you Surgical your own Phoenixes.
In: 2 Surgical Extraction, 1 Anger of the Gods, 1 Spell Pierce
Out: 2 Gut Shot, 1 Lightning Axe, 1 Flame Slash
Removal is truly atrocious in this matchup, but going up to a virtual six copies of Surgical Extraction thanks to Snapcaster Mage more than helps to make up for the shortcomings of our burn suite. This matchup hinges very heavily on Thing in the Ice, and unfortunately they’re able to do a pretty good job of dealing with it in post-board games. If you feel like they’re overloaded on interaction, feel free to board in a second copy of Spell Pierce to protect your threats.
In: 3 Life Goes On, 1 Dispel, 2 Abrade, 2 Spell Pierce
Out: 2 Gut Shot, 1 Surgical Extraction, 4 Thought Scour, 1 Crackling Drake
This is a matchup where we’re firmly in the control role with our powerful sideboard plan, and so we can afford to trim a bit on our Phoenix synergy enablers.
Best of luck on the battlefield! May your opponents never draw their Surgicals, so long as your Arclight triggers are on the stack.