At long last, grinding season is upon us! The latest changes to Magic's organized play system have finally started to roll out, and the first stop is the Regional Championship Qualifier (RCQ). This local-level tournament is on par with the Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers (PPTQs) that ran in the mid 2010s. As the name implies, RCQs qualify the winner to attend the Regional Championship (RC), which then feeds into the Pro Tour. They typically host somewhere from 30-80 players in Swiss-style tournament brackets and cut to top eight, meaning you could be duking it out all day long.
Once a player qualifies for the RC, they are no longer allowed to participate in subsequent RCQs for the remainder of the season. But at this stage of the game, everyone, even the best of the best, are still fighting to secure an invite.
Delver? I Hardly Know Her
This weekend, I had an impressive fourth-place finish at a local RCQ with UR Arclight Phoenix. It's not hard to sell me on a UR spell slinger deck, but I believe it to be the most well-rounded choice for Pioneer, even with the recent banning of Expressive Iteration. Although Iteration was one of the strongest draw spells printed in recent years and the banning certainly knocked Phoenix down a peg, it is still the best option to take advantage of the wildly powerful (and more than arguably bannable) delve spells, Treasure Cruise and Temporal Trespass.
These game-winning delve cards are enabled by Pieces of the Puzzle, which provides consistency in finding the spells, provides card advantage, and adds four additional cards to the graveyard to delve away. It also does a great job of putting Phoenixes into the graveyard to get back later.
A somewhat recent but welcome addition is Galvanic Iteration which doubles the next spell its caster plays. Combining this with Temporal Trespass makes a DIY Time Stretch for as little as five mana and is often sufficient to assemble a win from nearly any board position.
The Creatures in the Creature Suite are Sweet
Even in a "spells matter" deck, the creatures matter too. Across virtually all successful permutations of the deck, you'll find four Arclight Phoenix, two Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, and four Ledger Shredder in the main deck.
Ledger Shredder performs triple duty by stabilizing early, filtering draws, and as a way of sticking Phoenix into the graveyard to come back for free. Thing in the Ice similarly stabilizes and punishes popular decks like MonoG Devotion that play to the board. After flipping into Awoken Horror, it's often the largest creature in either deck and does an excellent Magus of the Abyss impression. Phoenix offers a recursive threat against decks playing counterspells and kill spells, and incidentally is a fairly large, evasive, hasty creature that can just be cast normally. Each of these creatures utilizes the same engine, but they attack on very different axes, making it difficult for the opponent to answer all of them.
What's in the Box?
There have been a few high-level players like Javier Domínguez, Yuta Takahashi, and Nathan Steuer that have all come to very similar conclusions on which direction to take the deck. Their lists only vary by a few flex spots and choices of removal. For example, some had multiple Alley Stranglers over Fiery Temper. A few had Sea Gate Restoration // Sea Gate Restoration as an untapped blue source that can be found via Pieces of the Puzzle. These changes, while minimal, can secure advantages based on anticipated matchups and expected opposing disruption.
As paper play typically trails behind MTGO results by a week or two, I expected Phoenix to show up in greater number this weekend. My thought process was also skewed by several players in the New England Magic Discord server all planning to bring the deck, so I made a few tweaks to the sideboard to improve my chances in the Phoenix mirror.
Anger of the Gods and Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft both help here while having some practical use against the other decks of the format. In particular, Anger was a phenomenal answer to Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton out of RB Midrange and Borrower provided a game-winning tempo advantage against MonoG's larger and higher-cost creatures like Cavalier of Thorns. Having played both RB and MonoG twice each during the tournament and the mirror zero times, I was still more than happy with these cards in my sideboard.
MonoG Ramp's goal is to deploy mana dorks like Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves alongside Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx to help power out large threats before the opponent can stabilize. Thing in the Ice flipping will reset their board and set them back a full turn to rebuild. This opens up opportunities to sneak in large chunks of damage or clear out a planeswalker. Their mana production is reliant on their creatures, So try to bolt the "bird" in the early game. The only cards that matter in this matchup are big green spells. Bring in the additional Thing in the Ice, Brazen Borrowers, Aether Gusts, and Disdainful Strokes over Spell Pierce, Lightning Axe, Galvanic Iteration, and Temporal Trespass.
RB Midrange is, as the kids say, "mid". It's a deck of grindy cards which highlights some of the issues with Pioneer's limited card pool. The deck is clogged in the three-drop slot and doesn't kill quickly. It also struggles with card draw and card selection, relying primarily on Fable of the Mirror Breaker, Castle Locthwain, and four mana planeswalkers to generate advantage. They have the tools to slow Phoenix down and a well-timed Go Blank can be a beating, but generally speaking, Phoenix is favored provided it can get its engine going.
A single Pieces of the Puzzle or Treasure Cruise will undo all the work they put into creating a resource-light game. Bring in Anger of the Gods, Young Pyromancer, and Thing in the Ice to wall off their ground creatures and cut down on Lightning Axe, Trespass, and Galvanic Iteration. RB will have tools to keep Phoenix's graveyard in check, so it's not a great idea to overload the deck with uncastable spells.
The mirror tends to come down to whose haymakers stick. Generally speaking, an unanswered Ledger Shredder will be bad news for the opponent. Both players will be triggering each other's Shredder turn after turn, filling graveyards and creating stalled boards. As far as the sideboard goes, Bring in Anger of the Gods, Brazen Borrowers and Mystical Disputes over Strangle, Fiery Temper, Sea Gate Restoration // Sea Gate Restoration, and one Trespass.
The UW Control matchup is not amazing, but not the worst either. Portable Hole is able to cheaply remove Thing in the Ice and Ledger Shredder while March of Otherworldly Light and The Wandering Emperor both exile Phoenix. These decks often run Narset, Parter of Veils along with Rest in Peace, both of which can be difficult to deal with. My philosophy for this matchup is to cut all spot removal and bring in all threats, Mystical Dispute, and Disdainful Stroke with the goal of running them out of answers.
Lotus Field Combo
I've found Lotus Field Combo to be the singular bad matchup for Phoenix. The deck operates by landing a Lotus Field, then untapping it with effects like Hidden Strings to generate mana. The end goal after sufficient mana is assembled is to cast some game-winning spell like Emergent Ultimatum. Uninterrupted, the deck typically wins around turn 4. Phoenix needs to play multiple spells on its own turn for its game plan to function, so leaving up mana each turn severely hampers your ability to develop a meaningful clock.
If the opponent is given enough time, they'll simply find and cast Thought Distortion, which is usually lights out for Phoenix. I like bringing in Aether Gust, Disdainful Stroke, Mystical Dispute, and Brazen Borrower for the matchup. A well-timed petty theft may be able to bounce an Omniscience back to the opponent's hand, but it's mainly a threat to play after leaving counterspells up during a potential combo turn. Feel free to cut removal, but I don't hate a Lightning Axe or two to answer A-Lier, Disciple of the Drowned.
I had another article planned for this week but wanted to cover the Phoenix deck while it was still hot off the presses. Keep an eye out for that one next week! Although, I do have another RCQ lined up for next weekend, so let's see if I can snag the trophy and give you that deck's breakdown instead. Article ideas can be hard to come by, so I'm trying to be the content I want to see in the world.
In the meantime, you can keep up to date with all of my shenanigans on Twitter at @AdamECohen. I'll see you all next week.