There Are Pandas, and Then There Are Pandas.
And this isn't either of them! The Pandas we're talking about here, are watches, not bears. And what got me thinking about them (again) was a link posted this morning by @cm.rook who pointed a few of us to the very attractive (and not terribly priced) Yema "Rallygraph" Panda which, in it's most traditional arrangement, looks like the one on the left, but can also be had in the version on the right: The model on the left is a true Panda, while the model on the right is called a reverse Panda. The reason for that distinction is clear--Panda bears, only come in the first arrangement. Now at this point, everyone should be thinking about the most well-know Panda, The Rolex Panda, which is actually a Daytona, and among Rolex Daytonas, the most famous of which is the Paul Newman Daytona, which was famous first, because it was Paul's, and second because it sold at auction for $17.8 million (US Dollars). The story of that auction is well-known so I'll only...
Nov 8, 2019
Motivation: Investigate the viability of Arclight Phoenix in Modern I started testing Arclight Phoenix soon after the release. It's quite a powerful card if you can consistently get it into play for free, and early versions were generally mono red and hyperfocused on achieving this goal. When picking up a new deck, I usually like to avoid making changes until I've played at least a few games. The reasons for certain card choices are not always readily apparent at first glance. I settled on the following list and ran it through a couple leagues.
Results: 2-0 vs Mono Red Phoenix 2-1 vs WG Flickerwisp 2-0 vs Grixis Shadow 2-1 vs WG Devoted Druid 2-0 vs Storm 2-1 vs UR Phoenix 2-0 vs Jund Pyromancer 2-1 vs Jund Shadow 2-0 vs Mardu Pyromancer 2-0 vs BR Vengevine Conclusions: Starting off with ten straight wins was definitely encouraging. The deck is capable of some explosive draws, and turn two Phoenixes happened on more than one occasion. When it survived, Runaway Steam-Kin overpeformed as both a decent-sized threat and as a mana engine. Desperate Ritual was also better than expected. Risk Factor was ok in some matchups, but a little clunky overall, but I really didn't like Gut Shot which felt too low impact for the main deck. Although the potential may seem obvious from the 10-0 result, it's important to remain objective. Overall, the synergies are strong but very vulnerable to graveyard hate and cheap answers like Path to Exile. I certainly wanted to keep working on the deck, but was worried about some of the matchups I hadn't played yet.
Test File #2: Mono Red Phoenix
Motivation: Investigate the viability of Monastery Swiftspear in place of Runaway Steam-Kin With so many spells in an aggressive deck, Monastery Swiftspear seems like a natural addition, but I was worried that the lack of evasion and the tendency to cast your spells all at once would make it weak to chump blockers and too low impact overall. Still, it was recommended to me as a way to speed up the kill, so I decided to give it a shot.
Results: 1-2 vs Sultai Midrange 1-2 vs 4c Saheeli 1-2 vs Dredge Conclusions: A small sample size, but my fears felt justified. The first two matches, in particular, showcased how bad of a topdeck Swiftspear was, and how vulnerable it was to chump blockers. Although some additional testing would help reinforce this conclusion, my hypothesis felt somewhat validated and, for the sake of efficiency, I decided to move on to the next experiment. I would be willing to revisit Swiftspear only if it started to show up consistently in winning decklists. For what it's worth, Scab-Clan Berserker was also fairly horrendous from the sideboard when I tried it, though maybe it's for very specific matchups.
Test File #3: Izzet Phoenix v1
Motivation: Investigate the viability of a blue red version with Thing in the Ice and more card selection I won a close match against an Izzet Phoenix deck in the second league and was impressed by how much of a threat Thing in the Ice seemed to be. Though I wasn't thrilled about losing Steam-Kin, the blue cards allowed the deck to play a more interactive game that was less vulnerable to graveyard hate and had better sideboard options.
Results: 2-1 vs Storm 2-0 vs Bant Spirits 2-1 vs Abzan Devoted Druid 2-0 vs Affinity 2-1 vs WG Devoted Elves Conclusions: Several games were won almost singlehandedly by Thing in the Ice, many in situations where Runaway Steam-Kin would have been insufficient. It allowed me to race Storm and seems very difficult to beat for creature decks like Affinity. As for the specific version, I didn't really like Izzet Charm. It was sometimes ok but often slow and clunky when all you really wanted to do was cast your spells as quickly as possible. The sideboard also looks like it could be improved. In particular, Alpine Moon seems too narrow and not effective enough.
Test File #4: Izzet Phoenix v2
Motivation: Investigate the viability of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy as an additional two mana threat I was pretty encouraged by the last league but decided to run it back with a few small changes. I saw a list go 5-0 with two Jace and figured it was worth a shot, even if it doesn't play into the overall aggressiveness of the deck. After cutting two Izzet Charms to make room, I decided to take things a little further and cut the other two Charms and two Thought Scour for four Lava Spike. I wanted more cheap spells and ways to burn them out if they somehow disable our graveyard. I also finally started to make some changes to the sideboard, adding two Ceremonious Rejection and a Lightning Axe instead of the Alpine Moons and one of the Dragon's Claws. I feel like Rejection is the best anti-Tron card and can be brought in for other matchups. Dragon's Claw also felt too narrow and wasn't really what I wanted to be doing in the Izzet Phoenix mirror. Lightning Axe was mostly to kill Tarmogoyfs but also comes in for the mirror and against other creature decks.
Results: 2-1 vs UR Phoenix 2-0 vs BG Midrange 2-0 vs Humans 2-0 vs BG Midrange with Utopia Sprawl 2-1 vs Bant Eldrazi Conclusions: I was pretty stoked to have four trophies in five leagues, with the only losses being with a version I didn't like. Jace was good when it survived but kind of felt like just another Chart a Course that didn't count as a spell. Lava Spike, on the other hand, felt like it really belonged in the deck. You tend to get into a lot of racing situations or situations where your more permanent threats are somehow disabled and three damage for a single mana is exactly what you're looking for.
Test File #5: Izzet Phoenix v3
Motivation: Investigate the viability of Rift Bolt in a version with more burn Back to work. Rift Bolt had been popping up in some 5-0 lists and had some appeal as a more flexible Lava Spike that, in theory, can help you combo off with Arclight Phoenix by investing mana on the previous turn. Suspending Rift Bolt on your first turn, for example, can enable Arclight Phoenix on your second with only a Faithless Looting and another one mana spell.
Results: 1-2 vs UR Phoenix 1-2 vs Hardened Scales 2-1 vs UR Phoenix 1-2 vs Titan Shift 0-2 vs Storm Conclusions: Realistically, I should have won Round 2, as I made several mistakes and finally timed out while trying to play on bad hotel wifi. Still, this version did not feel great. Rift Bolt was more awkward than anything else, and the lack of blue cantrips caused me to run out of spells if they were able to deal with my first wave of threats. Honestly, Rift Bolt was quite bad and, like Swiftspear, I decided to shelve it indefinitely.
Test File #6: Izzet Phoenix v4
Motivation: Generate more data to assess how good the deck really is At this point, I felt like I had tried a lot of the things I wanted to try and needed more reps to make sure the deck was actually good. I also started to look a little more closely at the mana base and sideboard. The first thing I wanted to do was cut Shivan Reef for a fourth Steam Vents. With so few colorless mana symbols in the deck, an early Shivan Reef will often deal you more than two damage over the course of the game anyway, and there are actually more opportunities than you would think to play your Steam Vents tapped since you often want to save your turn one cantrip to help flip Thing in the Ice or set up a third turn Arclight Phoenix. I also decided to try out Blood Moon in the sideboard for additional game against Tron. I generally dislike the card in slow decks as they can eventually just kill it with Oblivion Stone, but this deck is capable of killing them quickly. It's also more flexible than Alpine Moon and can even be used to good effect against decks like Dredge and Humans. I also changed the Ravenous Traps to Surgical Extractions. Leyline of the Void is the worst of the three as you see so many cards with your cantrips that you want to be able to cast the sideboard cards you see later in the game. Trap is the card you really want against Dredge, but Surgical is still good and has a lot more versatility, including being very good in the mirror.
Results: 2-0 vs KCI 2-0 vs Storm 1-2 vs UW 2-0 vs Mono Red Hollow One 2-0 vs Titan Shift 2-0 vs Hardened Scales 2-0 vs Titan Shift 2-0 vs Grixis Shadow 2-0 vs Mono Red Hollow Phoenix 2-0 vs Bant Eldrazi Conclusions: Well, I was finally paired against UW Control and things went as badly as predicted. Finishing off with a trophy by going 10-0 in games, however, was pretty nice. The deck is quite powerful and Thing in the Ice continues to impress as both a fast clock against non-interactive decks and as board control against slower creature strategies. One thing I like about the deck is how consistent it is with all the card filtering, and how you just blow some decks completely out of the water, while some of your bad matchups actually seem quite close.
Practice Run: Monday Night Magic Although there's still work to be done on the deck, I wanted to get some live reps in and took the deck to a local event in Vancouver. Results: 2-0 vs Storm 2-0 vs Tron 2-0 vs Jund 2-1 vs Dredge Storm, Tron, and Dredge are probably three of my worst matchups and I still managed to go undefeated. Winning the die roll and getting an early Thing in the Ice is key to beating Storm in game 1, though you do have some additional tools in the sideboard. Blood Moon was instrumental in defeating both Tron and Dredge, and has probably earned it's spot. The deck also proved is resilience by beating Leyline of the Void in games against both Jund and Dredge.
Final Analysis Having earned five trophies in eight leagues despite trying some subpar versions, I'm fairly convinced that the deck is for real and worth continuing to work on. Taking a rough look at twenty of the most popular archetypes in Modern, here's a breakdown of what I think it's matchup profile looks like:
Notes: 1. I cut the second Island for a fifth fetch land, as you really want as many red sources in play as possible for your Bedlam Reveler turns. 2. Thought Scour continues to be...ok. It pretty much does everything you want in game one, filling your graveyard, finding Arclight Phoenix, and replacing itself. It's possible you want four. That said, it's much worse post-sideboard against dedicated graveyard hate. For now, I feel like two is the right number, but I could see moving in either direction. 3. Fiery Temper often feels like the worst card in the deck, and could be shaved to make room for something else. It's nice to get a free spell off Chart a Course or Faithless Looting, but you are forced to spend three mana a little too often. 4. Abrade is probably the card I'm least confident about in the 75. It's nice to have something that can come in as additional removal against creature decks while still answering problematic artifacts, but I'm not sure the flexibility is justifiable in Modern where sideboard cards are usually higher impact. Questions for Further Testing: 1. Ross Merriam won the SCG Open with main deck Crackling Drakes and, while four mana is a lot, getting around graveyard hate is certainly a nice feature. This might be the answer to UW as it punishes them for ramping you with Path to Exile. I'm not sure if they're better than Bedlam Revelers but it's possible possible, especially considering post-sideboard games. 2. The mana base is robust enough that you could pretty easily support a fetchland-based splash by including a single Stomping Ground, Blood Crypt, or Sacred Foundry. This would probably be for sideboard cards like Ancient Grudge, Destructive Revelry, Thoughtseize, Collective Brutality, or even Stony Silence. 3. The sideboard probably still needs some tuning as I've mainly been trying different cards without creating a full sideboard plan. 4. Playing against random opposition online has started to become less useful, as I'm now at a point where I want to answer questions about specific matchups and tune the sideboard. After trying out Crackling Drake, focused matchup testing is probably the next order of business.
My final thoughts are that the archetype has a lot of potential. I'm happy with the work I've done so far and feel like my version is good, though I'm far from convinced it's the perfect 75. If you're looking for something new to try, it's a fun deck to play with a surprising number of very good matchups. Like any deck in Modern, however, there are some matchups you would prefer to avoid. Even in its early stages, I think it's probably already one of the best ten decks in the format, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a copy in the Top 8 at GP Portland this weekend. Thanks for reading. I hope it was helpful to see a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes while trying to iterate on a new, unexplored archetype. The advice I would give if you're planning something similar is to play games with a lot of different versions. Don't be afraid to try new ideas, or to quickly discard the ones that don't work. Also, while it's nice to keep track of match results, don't put too much stock into a relatively small sample size of data. Theory and how things feel can easily be as or more important than how many games were won or lost.