MTG Meta Breakers: How to Beat Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer

Everything you need to beat one of Pioneer's best decks

Card: Arclight Phoenix | Art: Slawomir Maniak

Welcome to MTG Meta Breakers! This series is devoted to helping you take on some of the most common decks in your favorite formats (aka “the meta”).


Whether you’re looking to climb the competitive ladder on Arena, want to win your local Friday Night Magic (FNM), or are just sick of getting beat, you’re in the right place.


For the purposes of this series, we’ll assume that all games are in best-of-three format. This allows you to sideboard against your opponent. When hoping to take down the metagame, sideboarding is your best friend.


Without further delay, let’s dive in!


Ever since Pioneer was created, one deck has stayed consistent atop the meta--Izzet Phoenix. It has survived countless format-defining bans and shifted to meet the demands of other top performers.

Izzet Phoenix consistently finds itself with top performances in Pioneer tournaments regardless of their size. Although it doesn’t feature a broken combo, this is one of the most powerful decks in the format.



With blue and red mana granting access to cards like Treasure Cruise, Arclight Phoenix, and Expressive Iteration, this deck can bury any opponent in card advantage. It has few equals in Pioneer.


While piloting Izzet Phoenix is more difficult than picking up a deck like Naya Winota, players that do it well can expect strong results.


But what if you want to beat Izzet Phoenix in your Pioneer matchups?


Players lined up against this deck certainly have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, though, it is far from invincible. With the right cards and the right plays, you can take down this meta-defining deck.


Ready to know how? Keep reading!

Understanding Izzet Phoenix Decks

At its core, Izzet Phoenix plays like most blue/red tempo decks. It aims to gain a tempo advantage early while keeping the board clear of major threats. Then, it explodes with card advantage in the late game to take over and start piling on threats of its own.


Like its counterpart in Modern, Izzet Murktide, this deck has access to some of the best spells in the format. Expressive Iteration is a house. The fact that it sees play back to Vintage should tell you something. This is one of the more important pieces of the deck as it provides both card advantage and consistent land drops.



However, it is far from the most important spell in the deck. Arguably, Treasure Cruise takes that title. One of the most broken cards in Pioneer, it allows you to cheat its eight-mana cost with delve by exiling cards from your graveyard. In a deck jam-packed with one-mana cantrips and cheap removal, it’s almost always possible to cast Treasure Cruise for one or two mana. Drawing three cards for one mana is, well, difficult to top.


Izzet Phoenix is built to fill the graveyard quickly and take advantage of this synergy.


Of course, filling the graveyard has another advantage. The namesake of the build, Arclight Phoenix, gets returned from your yard to the battlefield whenever you cast three instant and/or sorcery spells in a turn. The 3/2 flier with haste can pile on damage in a hurry while you keep drawing cards or clearing the board. Not to mention the fact that it is very difficult to remove cleanly.


Also, multiple Phoenixes can be returned to the battlefield in a single turn so long as they’re in your graveyard.


That isn’t this deck’s only plan, however.


Thing in the Ice can take over the game on its own. It’s comically easy to flip this card if you can dodge your opponent’s removal. From there, a 7/8 creature that clears the board is extremely difficult to overcome.


As a bonus, Temporal Trespass lets you take an extra turn when you fill the graveyard for only three mana. This isn’t the deck’s main plan, but it can be a nice way to push through those last few points of damage or get an extra Phoenix into play.


Finally, Stormwing Entity, Crackling Drake, and Sprite Dragon should be mentioned. All three see play in this list and players tend to choose one over the other. While Stormwing is more popular, Sprite Dragon is a decent choice in a deck that fires off so many spells each turn. Crackling Drake takes advantage of all the cards building up in your graveyard. These are simply extra ways to attack in the air and add early pressure until you get a Phoenix out.


Outside of the main game plan, Izzet Phoenix aims to control the board with a combination of counterspells and removal. Cheap damage-based removal like Flame-Blessed Bolt, Lightning Axe, and Sweltering Suns wreak havoc on small creatures.


Meanwhile, Mystical Dispute, Negate, and Aether Gust keep combo and control honest, though they can rarely shut them down entirely. Out of the board, Narset, Parter of Veils does work when it comes to denying card advantage to your opponent.

High Priority Targets

Beating Izzet Phoenix comes down to two things—stopping their card advantage and dealing with their fliers.

Few decks are able to do both effectively. Either you focus on creature removal and eventually get swallowed in a wave of card advantage or try to win the card game and succumb to hasty creatures in the process.

Ultimately, this means you need to prioritize well in this matchup to find success.


You’ll need to accept the fact you won’t be able to match the Izzet Phoenix player on card advantage. They win the game by putting creatures into play as a reward for drawing more cards or clearing your board (as if drawing cards needed to be more rewarding).


Playing against this deck means you’ll certainly be facing down an Arclight Phoenix or Stormwing Entity at some point.


That leaves you with three options—prolong the inevitable, win first, or exile their threats.


The first is typically the strategy for control decks. You want to keep things clean for as long as possible until you can stick a threat of your own and protect it. From there, your threat is likely better than a Phoenix or Stormwing. As long as you can protect your threat, you’ll be well-positioned to take over the game before the Izzet player can close things out.



Winning first is the strategy of choice for Pioneer’s hyper-aggressive builds. Although Izzet Phoenix isn’t an aggro deck at heart, it can close games very quickly. That means winning first requires a game plan that’s all-in on pushing through damage in the first few turns.


The latter approach is viable, especially in sideboard games, for most decks. Exile-based removal is difficult for Izzet Phoenix players to deal with. Why? It keeps Arclight from returning to the battlefield for free as they rattle off spells. With enough exile-based removal, you can effectively strip this deck of its win-cons, giving you time to close things out.


Cards that Beat Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer


While few decks can match Izzet Phoenix in terms of card advantage, there are plenty of cards that help shut it down. They fall into several categories, including hard graveyard hate, targeted graveyard hate, card denial, and exile.


Let’s take a look at some of the best cards for beating Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer.



Hard Graveyard Hate

One way of dealing with Arclight Phoenix in the graveyard is keeping it out of the graveyard in the first place. That can be accomplished with an array of hard graveyard hate pieces in Pioneer. Rest in Peace is arguably the best and sees the most play. Although it does shut off your graveyard as well, which may or may not matter depending on which deck you’re playing.


Leyline of the Void is also a solid choice as it only hits your opponent’s graveyard. As a bonus, you can start the game with it on the battlefield if you draw it in your opening hand. This is huge against Izzet Phoenix and can easily win the game if they can’t answer it.


Grafdigger’s Cage also falls into this category as it stops Phoenix from entering the battlefield. However, it is more fragile than the other options and sees less play because of it.


Soft Graveyard Hate

Soft graveyard hate can also be effective against Izzet Phoenix decks if played correctly. This can refer to any type of card that deals with the graveyard one time or removes targeted cards from it.


Go Blank has seen a decent amount of play since its release in Strixhaven. Not only does it force your opponent to discard two cards, it also exiles their graveyard in the process. This can be potent if you can get past a counterspell and play it on curve.


Soul-Guide Lantern is another good example that serves two purposes. When it comes into play, you can remove a target card from a graveyard (like that Phoenix that just hit). Then, later, you can sacrifice it to either draw a card or exile your opponent’s entire graveyard. This lets you hit multiple cards at different stages of the game.


Cling to Dust is a good option for cheap, instant-speed, targeted removal. You can also gain some life in the process and replay it from your graveyard later in the game.


Graveyard Trespasser is essentially Cling to Dust stapled to a difficult-to-remove body. This is a great way for black-based aggro decks to manage the graveyard while applying pressure on the board.


Erebos’s Intervention doesn’t see as much play, but can be useful for exiling key pieces from your opponent’s yard or gaining you life in close matchups.


Finally, the new Farewell from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty fills two roles in this matchup. It can exile all creatures on the battlefield as well as all graveyards (as well as enchantments and artifacts though that is less relevant here). Not all decks will be able to survive long enough to cast Farewell, but those that can usually swing the tide of the game.


Exile Removal

When it comes to removing creatures in this matchup, doing so with exile is important as it stops them from coming back.


Anger of the Gods is a card that sees plenty of play in Pioneer for good reason. Its three damage is enough to kill (and thus exile) both Arclight Phoenix and a non-prowessed Stormwing.


Flame-Blessed Bolt is a solid piece of targeted removal that deals with Arclight cleanly. It’s also quite cheap and hits planeswalkers too, giving it plenty of upside.


Control decks are starting to embrace The Wandering Emperor as a key piece of their strategy. It works well against Arclight Phoenix as its minus ability lets you exile a tapped creature. Flashing it in after your opponent has spent their mana to return a Phoenix from the graveyard and then exiling it is quite a blowout. Especially since you can make tokens or buff your creatures on your turn.


Other Good Cards

A Pioneer all-star, Narset, Parter of Veils is huge against greedy decks that want to draw a lot of cards. There isn’t much to say here that hasn’t already been said. Most blue-based decks are already running Narset and it will be a helpful piece in this matchup.


For non-blue decks, there are still ways to interact. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben taxes the Izzet player’s cheap cantrips and draw spells. While she will probably get removed quickly, it can be enough to throw off your opponent’s tempo for a turn or two while you stabilize.


Archon of Emeria can also be effective. Stopping your opponent from casting multiple spells in a turn shuts off their ability to return Phoenix from the graveyard and limits their card advantage. In the worst case, it also trades in combat with the bird.


Common Mistakes Against Izzet Phoenix

Arguably the biggest mistake players make against Izzet Phoenix decks is trying to match them card for card. Given the ease your opponent can fire off cantrips and draw spells, there is no way to match them unless you're playing the mirror.


Trying to do so is a way to set yourself up for a loss.


Rather than trying to match the Izzet player, instead, focus on your own game plan. That might mean working towards a game-winning combo. It may mean turning your creatures sideways to deal damage. Regardless, you should be focusing on what your deck does best. At the same time, try to work on the strategies mentioned earlier to disrupt either your opponent's card advantage or their creatures.



Another common mistake players make in this matchup is role assessment. The Izzet deck can take on many shapes and adapt its strategy throughout the game. This can make it difficult to nail down which role you're supposed to play.


Few decks (outside of hyper-aggressive builds or hard control lists) can establish their role at the beginning of the game and stick to it. Others will need to be flexible and reassess as the game progresses.


Choosing the wrong role can spell disaster. For instance, if you play too aggressively and leave your shields down on the turn your opponent is ready to fire off three spells, they can flood the sky with birds. Play too cautiously and you'll get overwhelmed with card advantage or be unable to interact with their board through counterspells.


As such, you must choose your role carefully based on the cues given to you by the Izzet player. If you see two Arclights in the yard with several cards in hand, you might want to dial things back. If your opponent is burning cantrips without a payoff, you probably want to play more aggressively.


Finally, it's crucial not to get caught off guard. Izzet Phoenix can be extremely explosive. An aerial assault can start at a moment's notice, even if the graveyard looks unassuming. As such, always plan for the worst and expect to face down a Phoenix or two (or three) at some point in the game.

Best Matchups Against Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer

Simply put, there aren't a ton of bad matchups for Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer. It can hang with most decks in the format and win at any stage of the game. That said, there are a few decks it has trouble with.



Burn / Mono-Red Aggro

This can be a pesky deck to deal with as it wins games quickly. Izzet Phoenix needs to move quickly and draw well to find success in the matchup.


Arguably the biggest issue is Eidolon of the Great Revel. A resolved Eidolon that you can't deal with is typically game-ending. The Izzet player can't afford to take two life off each cantrip they cast, which puts a huge target on the Eidolon.


Mono-red decks can get out quickly and close out games before Arclight can find its way onto the battlefield. Although this isn't nearly as threatening as Modern Burn, it can get the job done and steal wins, especially with a good draw.



Big Combo

There aren't many top tier combo decks in Pioneer. However, those able to quickly find their win-con can overwhelm Izzet Phoenix simply by winning faster.


For instance, Mardu Greasefang can put multiple 4/4 angels into play by reanimating Parhelion II. That's a nightmare for Arclight Phoenix and will almost always amount to a win.


Other decks, like Lotus Field Combo, can win the game on the spot before Izzet Phoenix can push through enough damage.


Although the matchup against these combo decks depends on each player's draw, going over the top is a viable way to beat Phoenix in Pioneer.



Azorius / Orzhov Auras

The matchup with Azorius/Orzhov Auras depends almost exclusively on whether the Izzet player can find sufficient removal to deal with their threats. In most games, that is a difficult task given the number of bodies the Aura player has access to.


Once a creature gets buffed, it is even more difficult for the Izzet player to remove with damage-based spells.


This gives Auras a solid matchup against Izzet Phoenix, even if it doesn't have a great matchup with the field as a whole.


Conclusion

Dealing with Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer is a daunting proposition. It has been one of the format's best decks since its inception and will likely remain so without a major ban hitting one of its key pieces.


Although it has few weaknesses outside of graveyard hate, it isn't impossible to beat. With proper role assessment, crisp play, and the right cards in your deck, you can ensure the Phoenix won't keep rising.


 

What's your favorite way to deal with Izzet Murktide? Know of a great matchup we missed? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!


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