Each tournament, Izzet Phoenix's impressive, sustained numbers start to look less like an outlier and more like a pattern. Patterns like these have a history of being addressed by Wizards via the banlist. So how does Izzet Phoenix stack up against past offenders? Do the deck's decriers have a case for caging the bird? Let's find out!
Explaining Phoenix's Numbers
Something Modern routinely comes under fire for is the high cost of its decks. Compared with many strategies the format offers, Izzet Phoenix ranks among the cheapest. Sure, the deck is $1000 now, but it wasn't a month or even a couple weeks ago; the announcements surrounding Modern Horizons, coupled with Phoenix's growing popularity, have significantly increased the price of certain Modern staples—most notably Scalding Tarn, the single most expensive card in Izzet by a mile. Add to that the fact that many players bought into Phoenix earlier than just yesterday, and lots of Modern players already own Scalding Tarns, and Phoenix becomes a very affordable option.
Loosely related is Phoenix's status in Standard, where pundits also claim it may be the best deck. Players who own the deck in Standard don't need much to make it work in Modern, too, meaning the deck's presence here may have attracted players who might not even register for tournaments otherwise. It's not only cheaper to have two decks that mostly share a core of cards; doing so also takes pressure off players to dedicate time to learning a new archetype.
Another key factor is Phoenix's strategic profile. Its mass of cantrips give the deck a low skill floor, meaning newer pilots can expect to do okay with the deck—its gameplan of bin-a-Phoenix or land-a-Thing and then chain together cantrips is both powerful and intuitive. Simply being in a resource-strapped mid-game state will advantage the Phoenix deck over more interactive strategies, as topdecking but one cantrip can lead to a chain that revives the 3/2s. In this way, Izzet is a critical mass deck (like Burn or Infect) that doesn't necessarily rely on having those pieces in the hand to begin with: they all find each other.
Phoenix also has a high skill ceiling, meaning there's plenty to learn and master within the deck. Additional time sunk into the strategy rewards its pilots handsomely. Take Michael Bernat's expert cantrip sequencing while blazing through the GP Los Angeles Top 8. This aspect of the deck draws pros and higher-level players to the deck; players that might win on any passable option.
Phoenix's profile attracts players of all skill levels. But perhaps Phoenix's most alluring feature for many , especially those with much on the line at Magic tournaments like pros, is its pedigree. Phoenix's numbers continue to not drop despite the target on its head, further adding credence to the idea that it is indeed the best thing to be doing in Modern. In any case, prospective players could certainly do worse; they'll never be called scrubs for sleeving up this veritable boogeyman.
Meet the Bandidates
Our next question: what would Wizards even ban? There are a few candidates in the running, so it depends on the goals they have for post-Phoenix Modern.
A simple Google search pegs Faithless Looting as the most popular ban target according to most Modern players, with pros and content creators stoking the fire of memes at lower levels. Looting enables the deck's fast Phoenix starts and gives the deck longevity; it's perhaps the best card in the deck.
Wizards could hit Looting for a couple of reasons. It's a nice target if they also want to nerf Dredge, another of the format's top-performing strategies. And it's of course a goner if Wizards decides they don't want such an efficient card selection spell legal at all. I do think this hit will neuter Phoenix into the deep future. The deck will probably still exist, but it should be knocked down a tier or two, as turn-two Phoenixes will be much tougher to achieve.
I'm against a Looting ban on the grounds that the card is splashed into so many decks. (It's also just really fun to cast, which has made it one of my favorite cards in Modern since the format's inception.) Like Ancient Stirrings, Looting enables multiple decks, including a swath of Tier 3-and-below archetypes (Mardu Pyromancer, Grishoalbrand, Hollow One, Storm, etc.). In terms of metagame implications, banning it would be akin to banning Lightning Bolt, as the format would shift radically in its absence, food-chain-style; while Bolt is more played overall, it's less crucial to any strategy, as similar options exist.
R&D has also recently expressed reluctance to remove Faithless Looting, citing the format's shifting nature. Indeed, Ancient Stirrings went through a period last year of extreme prejudice in the community, with many calling for its ban; with Krark-Clan Ironworks gone, though, these same voices have declared the cantrip safe for Modern. I can see that happening with Looting once Izzet Phoenix ceases to perform, one way or the other.
Others have called Manamorphose the problem with the deck. Cutting this piece won't hurt Phoenix as much as the Looting ban would, but I think the effects are close. Early Phoenixes still exist between Gut Shot and Surgical Extraction. Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror becomes about a turn slower on average.
One thing I like about a Manamorphose hit is the lack of splash damage. Almost nobody plays this card! It's splashable, sure, but there are just too few ways to profit from its enabling. I think this is the most conservative and surgical ban: it mostly just hits Phoenix, but it still lets the deck go on in some capacity. Manamorphoseis an ideal ban if Wizards merely wants to take Phoenix down a notch in their update.
One suggestion I haven't heard is to ban Phoenix itself. My reasoning here is that URx decks were fine and diverse before Phoenix arrived on the scene, and the other pieces of the deck all contribute to Modern's diversity. There's a real possibility that Wizards won't want Phoenix in the format anymore come May 20. This is the route the company went with other diversity offenders (more on this below) like Treasure Cruise and Birthing Pod: it's extreme, but very safe.
Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror has been called the best creature in the deck, with Ross Merriam going so far as to say Izzet Phoenix's name is misleading. So why isn't Thing a consideration? While I believe a Thing ban would significantly hurt Izzet Phoenix, I think Thing is the kind of build-around, spells-matter card Wizards wants to be okay for Modern, which is why they keep printing cards in a similar vein (most recently, Pteramander). The creature saw fringe play before Phoenix, and was obviously fine in the format at that point, so I think Phoenix is a likelier hit if it comes to sniping the creature base.
This element strikes me as Phoenix's biggest offense. It's true that Modern is mostly diverse outside of Phoenix, and that Phoenix is mostly just popular at large events. But I don't think Wizards cares so much. They banned Twin mostly* on the grounds of GP Top 8 performance, for instance, which barely affects the majority of players. It seems the company operates via a trickle-down metric, adjusting the format based on large-event performance because they have unprecedented access to those numbers, and hoping the metagames created at the top tables are reflected at the lower ones.
While other decks exist, the fact still remains that all signs point to Phoenix taking up a huge slice of the competitive Modern metagame; something like 20%. That's more than Twin ever claimed, but I don't think Twin should necessarily be our point of reference, as many factors contributed to its banning. There are other, more pertinent comparisons to draw, such as to Birthing Pod, Deathrite Shaman, Bloodbraid Elf, and Treasure Cruise. All these cards were banned for spearheading decks exceeding 20% Day 2 metagame shares and GP/PT Top 8 shares. Based on the numbers we have right now, Phoenix also passes that breaking point.
Cruise specifically is very close to Phoenix in format effects. It single-handedly created a cantrip-loaded UR deck that pushed 20% of the metagame share.
*Many also hold that Twin was banned to shake up the PT. While this argument is somewhat rooted in fact, we still have more evidence that Wizards' stated reasons for the ban were actual ones, and not just distractions, so I won't here entertain this (relatively plausible) conspiracy theory.
When the Clock Strikes...
If Arclight Phoenix is as egregious as Treasure Cruise, why isn't it banned? I think at this point, we're looking at less of a "why" question and more of a "when." While the Los Angeles and Bilbao trends are troubling from a save-the-Phoenix perspective, the fact is they haven't so far been enough to warrant direct action from Wizards. The company is likely waiting until the next scheduled update on May 20 to do something about Phoenix. As David mentioned this week, there are plenty more high-profile events on the horizon this month. There's a nonzero chance the format corrects itself by then, perhaps adopting some of the many strategies listed on this very site to combat the recurring flier.
Likelihood of Internal Regulation
Personally, I doubt that happens. The best players already know how to best Phoenix, or at least understand their gameplans, and the deck is still crushing. I don't buy that there's a bunch of secret tech Modern grinders have yet to discover or wield appropriately.
The metagame may well shift a little bit, and I wouldn't be surprised if Phoenix's share dipped slightly. But I don't think the slight dip I predict will prove enough to protect the deck from the May 20 update.
Modern Horizons on the Way
Another argument I've heard for leaving the format as-is: Modern Horizons releases on June 14, and is likely to deeply alter the format in one way or another. But June 14 is three months away, and the set's impact is not guaranteed. Wizards has never waited for seismic shifts before acting in the past—the most obvious example is their Splinter Twin ban just before Oath of the Gatewatch was released and Eldrazi took over the format. I seriously doubt Horizons prevents any otherwise warranted move in May.
Fire on the Leaves
This Modern is proving one of the most divisive in recent times, with many voicing concern over Phoenix and Dredge while others claim Modern is in a Golden Age. How do you feel about the current format? Which direction do you hope Wizards takes in regards to Phoenix? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!