Deck Guide: Mono-Red Phoenix (3/19)

Yesterday we presented a tournament report from Kenan who took down a Pro Tour Qualifier with the deck. Today he is back with an updated list and massive guide. We will cover the basic gameplan, the current build, and how to sideboard against the top decks in the format. If you are interested in picking up Mono-Red in Modern this should be your first stop.

Mono-Red Phoenix, despite its name, is really about the Prowess creatures. Your Plan A is to get in as much early damage by casting lots of spells and turning them into Prowess triggers. Sometimes this kills your opponent outright, and if it does not, the deck has some sources of card advantage to help close out the game. Reanimating Phoenixes can be a component of both halves of this plan, but it is not what the deck is fundamentally about. One common misconception is that this deck can play like a burn deck: it usually cannot.  We run a lot of Faithless Lootings, Gut Shots, Manamorphoses, and Light Up the Stages. You will run out of burn very quickly if you try to count to twenty straight up.

Mono-Red Phoenix deserves consideration over Burn because the two decks have comparably fast draws and yet Phoenix can also play a longer, grindy game. Burn often plays poorly from behind, and this deck does not. Mono-Red Phoenix deserves consideration over Izzet Phoenix because it is much more proactive and therefore mitigates many of Izzet’s weaknesses just by virtue of having a faster goldfish. There is a limit to how poor a matchup can be when there is a non-trivial chance that you just kill your opponent on Turn 3.

Quick Tips for Novices
Mulligan aggressively
You cannot keep mono-burn hands. You cannot keep mono-creature hands. You usually cannot keep four landers unless you have a Prowess creature and either Looting or a Light Up that you can turn on early. You cannot keep hands that do not do anything relevant in the matchup even if they have “everything”. For instance, consider the following hand:

Mountain, Mountain, Mountain, Soul-Scar Mage, Gut Shot, Manamorphose, Bedlam Reveler

This is a snap mulligan against Izzet Phoenix and a very marginal hand otherwise. This is literally a hand I did mulligan in the Top 8 of the PTQ. The deck can win off of five or six cards easily. You have draws that leave your opponent dead with cards in hand; basic aggro strategy.

Tank every turn
The deck is sometimes capable of generating over ten damage in a turn and naturally finds itself in extremely sharp positions. Doing something slightly wrong means that you miss out on lethal and may lose because of it. Always ask yourself if you have lethal in hand. If you do not, do you have a Light Up or a Looting? If you do, what would you need to draw to make lethal? What is the probability that you would draw any card that would get you close? What would you do if your Looting or Light Up finds another Looting or Light Up? Or if you whiff completely, how bad is that given the matchup and the board state? If you decide to go for it and cast Faithless Looting, after you draw your two cards, are you 100% sure what the two cards you should discard are? If you can get your opponent to one or two life given the board state, is that “as good as lethal” given the matchup and the board state? Count your Prowess triggers carefully. Do not move to combat unless you are absolutely sure. The deck generates a lot of Turn 3-4 wins and effective wins. You will have time for lunch I guarantee; just do not rush anything.

Do not overboard
This is like a combo deck in some ways and you cannot ruin your Prowess synergies by boarding in everything. I said I board out eight cards in the Phoenix mirror, but that is a huge exception. I do not usually board out more than four or five cards in most matchups. Specific notes are available later in this guide.

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The Build
The main thing that jumps out about the list is that it plays Forked Bolt over Skewer the Critics. I am aware this is an extremely contrarian opinion, but it has some precedent, at least in my playgroup. Prior to Ravnica Allegiance’s printing, a version of Mono-Red Phoenix playing Hollow One and friends existed. It was tuned and piloted by my good friend Christoph Schlom in the January 2019 RPTQ. He went 5-0-1 in the Swiss and won his quarterfinals match to make Top 4 and secure an invitation to Pro Tour Cleveland. His deck guide is available here and his tournament report is available here.

But for those who do not wish to read through these, the main excerpt of interest is Christoph’s ode to Forked Bolt, which I excerpt below:

What’s going on with all those Forked Bolts???

Well, what’s going on is that they’re great. I think this card is pretty clearly the second-best Lightning Bolt in the format, and we really need instants and sorceries to get Phoenix/Reveler working. […] Let’s consider some alternatives:

Flame Slash/Lightning Axe/Dismember: Completely unplayable because you can’t cast them if they don’t have creatures and you can’t burn them out if they’re low.

Burst Lightning: This card is way worse than Forked Bolt. Sometimes creatures have 1 toughness. Instant speed is not very useful in a Phoenix Deck.

Maximize Velocity: Reasonable idea, but wasn’t particularly great in my testing. One issue is that you don’t have that many creatures early if you want to trigger Phoenix. […] Second, I kind of feel like this deck is already plenty aggressive to kill combo/control players quickly; a big point in favor of the current build in my mind is that it plays the control role quite well against aggro decks with the burn spells. Maximize Velocity is only good sometimes and only does one of these things […]

Keep in mind that Forked Bolt is a legacy-playable card, and it’s certainly not like modern doesn’t have 1-toughness creatures. Every time you kill their Noble Hierarch and hit them for one, Forked Bolt is the same amount better than Bolt as Bolt typically is compared to Shock (1 more damage). Every time you 2-for-1 them, it’s a massive swing. Every time you kill their blockers and knock through a gigantic hit with Bedlam Reveler it’s good. […]

Forked Bolt is specifically very good against Humans and Spirits (obviously), Hardened Scales, and (surprisingly) Dredge. Against Dredge, games typically come down to a super tight race, and on the critical turn a big part of their game plan is blocking with Narcomoebas (Amalgam comes in tapped; Bloodghast can’t block). Forked Bolt is clearly very good here.

It is my opinion that this incarnation of Mono-Red Phoenix is even better than the Hollow One version at playing a longer game, and hence I believe that Christoph’s defense of Forked Bolt translates more or less exactly to this context. In fact, I think Forked Bolt is such a good idea that you should play four Forked Bolt before any Skewer the Critics. Although the initial negative reaction to this suggestion has been somewhat tempered in recent weeks due to Forked Bolt’s success on Magic Online and elsewhere, this stance still strikes many as deeply counter-intuitive. I believe Forked Bolt does not get any respect because conventional Burn does not want it, people incorrectly infer that since Skewer being good in Burn translates to this deck, and people always underestimate the value of having options. We must remember when Treasure Cruise was legal in Legacy, this was a card that got played in multiples in Izzet Delver.

There are a few reasons why I believe Forked Bolt to be better than Skewer the Critics in this deck. First, Skewer the Critics plays terribly from behind. When your one-drop Prowess creatures die early or your opponent is ahead on tempo, Skewer usually costs either two cards or three mana; which is disastrously expensive for a Lightning Bolt when you are forced to assume the control role. Along the same lines, Skewer the Critics kind of plays like a Lava Spike that requires some work to turn on when you are ahead, which is again not what you want. Despite appearances this deck is not a burn deck. Opening hands that only contain burn spells are actually very weak and must be mulliganed; the deck wins by attacking. What it needs more are ways to remove blockers or disincentivize blocking. This is not something you wish to pay two cards or three mana for.

But more generally, Skewer just does not play well with the deck’s desired sequencing. For one, the deck really does sometimes have to unload its hand. Sometimes, you do this proactively when you are trying to reanimate Phoenix back or turn on Reveler. Sometimes you do this from behind when you are digging for something because Looting leaves you down a card. In both situations, subsequent topdecked Skewers look terrible. Finally, and most obviously, playing too many Spectacle cards often yields disastrous opening hands that cannot do anything.

In comparison, Light Up the Stage does it all. It fixes marginal opening hands, gives you a source of card advantage in the late game, and enables your most explosive turns since it is a spell that finds more spells. And in longer games, a three mana Divination is not the worst thing on Earth.

Sideboard Choices
Most of the options were covered in yesterday’s tournament report but these are some additional notes.

Dragon’s Claw
Very narrow and not really a powerful card, but I played three anyway because I wanted to respect the mirror. You definitely should not bring it in versus Izzet Phoenix, since both pilots want to transform into hard control decks post-board. And you do not really need it versus Burn (although it is good) because with a painless mana base and a quick clock that obliges the Burn pilot to point spells at Prowess creatures in certain spots, the matchup already feels slightly favorable. Going forward, I think two is correct.

Shattering Spree
A concession to Hardened Scales and Chalice of the Void decks, which both seemed like they were upticking in popularity. Since Toronto cemented Whir Prison as a “real deck”, I recommend playing a third over the third Dragon’s Claw.

Shrine of Burning Rage
A card to bring in when you want to play longer games or lessen your reliance on the graveyard. Shrine of Burning Rage is an old-school piece of Burn technology against fair decks. It is hard to interact with, and it is “like a Prowess creature” in that it produces one damage every turn plus one damage for every spell you cast. As of the present writing, I actually like running one in the maindeck over a Gut Shot as an ersatz ninth Prowess creature, since you really want a Prowess effect in your opener if at all possible.

Sideboard Guide
The main thing to remember is that there are not many cards that you can side out. Only four cards ever were sided out during the GP weekend: Gut Shot, Lava Spike, Forked Bolt, and Bedlam Reveler. You side out Gut Shot when speed is not as important. You side out Lava Spike when you want to control the board better. You side out Forked Bolt when your opponent is not playing to the board. And you side out Bedlam Reveler when you think it might get stranded in your hand due to a Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void effect. I really do not ever use sideboard guides. I just try to think through what matters in each matchup but of course for the most common matchups there are well-defined plans. 

The plans below were written using the old list, and as I said, sideboard guides are not really my thing, so I am loath to update these. However, extrapolating to the updated list is a good exercise for the reader: think about what matters in each matchup. I have given one example solution for the Izzet Phoenix matchup as it is particularly relevant right now.

Affinity (both builds): Same as above, but I think Spree is beter than Shrine in these matchups. Pillar of Flame is quite good against Scales.
-4 Lava Spike
+2 Pillar of Flame, +2 Shattering Spree

let: Forked Bolt sucks, but so does everything else in the sideboard. You win this matchup by not keeping bad hands. You look for the aggro draw.
-2 Forked Bolt
+2 Eidolon of the Great Revel

Burn: Claw is good, of course, but so is PillarYou are more scared of their creature-heavy hands than anything else.
-4 Gut Shot, -1 Lava Spike
+3 Dragon’s Claw, +2 Pillar of Flame

: You do not want too many of the Phyrexian mana spells, so I do not mind cutting a few Gut Shot here. You are the more controlling deck, but do not be too passive since Chill and Conflagrate can generate surprise wins for the Dredge player.
-3 Lava Spike, -2 Gut Shot
+3 Surgical Extraction, +2 Pillar of Flame

Grixis Death’s Shadow: Manage the “one-shot each other” subgame.
-4 Gut Shot
+2 Eidolon of the Great Revel, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage

Humans and other non-artifact creature decks:
All these matchups are treated in the same way. Lava Spike is awful, play to the board more.
-4 Lava Spike
+2 Pillar of Flame, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage

Izzet Phoenix:
Transform into control because you are better at it.
-4 Gut Shot, -4 Lava Spike
+2 Pillar of Flame, +3 Surgical Extraction, +1 Hazoret the Fervent, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage

Example for the new list:
-3 Gut Shot, -4 Lava Spike,
+3 Surgical Extraction, +2 Burst Lightning, +1 Dismember, +1 Shrine of Burning Rage

Mono-Red Phoenix: You cannot really transform into control due to aggressive starts. Izzet’s aggro starts are not nearly as scary to me. Claw is good here to not fall behind, but honestly it is not all that great. It will not win on the spot, you have to still try to be proactive.
-4 Gut Shot, -4 Lava Spike
+2 Pillar of Flame, +3 Surgical Extraction, +3 Dragon’s Claw

Spirits: You can side out Reveler in advance expecting Rest in Peace, and in that case, you can bring in a Hazoret.
-4 Lava Spike, -1 Reveler
+2 Pillar of Flame, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage, +1 Hazoret

Storm: They are a bit faster of a goldfish if undisrupted, so try to make sure you can do something if Baral or Electromancer resolves; do not burn Bolt for no reason. Extraction is also an option to side in here over the other two Forked Bolts. I must admit that I have not played this matchup enough to know whether it is worth the impact to your goldfish speed.
-2 Forked Bolt
+2 Eidolon of the Great Revel

TitanShift: The same as Amulet Titan. You want an aggressive draw. Blood Moon is very useful in the updated list.
-2 Forked Bolt
+2 Eidolon of the Great Revel

Tron: Sprees are okay here and an early Eidolon can buy you a turn of clock.
-4 Forked Bolt
+2 Shattering Spree, +2 Eidolon of the Great Revel

Whir Prison: Diversify mana costs as much as you can. Forked Bolt is obviously not important here, but Gut Shot and Lava Spike are about as bad as each other. I do not think you can cut too much of either since they both play a role in your best aggressive starts, but you want to trim some number for the purpose of not being as cold to Chalice.
-4 Forked Bolt, -2 Gut Shot, -1 Lava Spike
+2 Shattering Spree, +1 Hazoret the Fervent, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage, +2 Eidolon of the Great Revel

UW Control: Rest in Peace is not as popular right now as it once was. If it picks back up you can think about siding out more Revelers, but I do not side it out for Game 2. If I see it in Game 3, maybe one comes out. Hazoret can be okay but it is a tad clunky and they have a bunch of outs.
-4 Forked Bolt
+2 Eidolon of the Great Revel, +2 Shrine of Burning Rage

How to Beat this Deck
The deck is easily beatable. It is not the best deck in the format, and it is not the most resilient deck in the format. I just worked on it, understood it well, and ran super hot. It is really not the best deck choice in my opinion. That honor probably goes to Amulet Titan backed by lots of practice.

The most obvious and effective counterplay is of course, weird white cards. WorshipRule of Law, Ghostly Prison, and Eidolon of Rhetoric. All of these are nearly unbeatable. Other white cards that are good but not unbeatable include Leyline of Sanctity, Auriok Champion, Kor Firewalker, Timely Reinforcements, and Kitchen Finks

Rest in Peace is not very good in the matchup. I am going to side out Reveler if I suspect this and I can hardcast Phoenix. Blessed Alliance is too inefficient and you do not want to ramp me with Path to Exile.

Structurally, the deck is all one-drops. So Chalice is good but a super-hateful sideboard can be played to mitigate that.

Also, Red has no playable four-damage spells that go upstairs and getting four power on a one-drop Prowess creature is kind of an ask. So four-toughness creatures, such as Spellskite, can be pretty good too.

Try not to play one-toughness creatures. Forked Bolt is too much of a blowout against that and Gut Shot is very efficient. But maybe that is not an issue since my opinion about Forked Bolt is still quite contrarian and Skewer may remain the more popular choice going forward.

Most of all, do something proactive. I have ways to win on Turn 20. You have to have some pressure.

We hope that we have covered any questions that you may have had about Modern’s hottest new deck. If you would like to join the content team to contribute, please contact us here. Or if you just need a place to discuss your ideas and impact future site content we have a group for you. We will be back tomorrow with one more article to close out the week. Until then my friends.

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