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CounterPhoenix Primer
By Oscar Tan aka Rakso
Counter-Phoenix FAQ by Oscar Tan aka Rakso
Type I Maintainer, www.bdominia.com
June 9, 2000, Manila, Philippines

(note: This is a casual deck FAQ and sets before Revised and Fallen Empires are not emphasized, though Ancestral Recall and Library of Alexandria would automatically be in the deck)

Counterburn is the first deck I ever played, back when Power Sink and Counterspell were the only solid counters (and before I traded for 4 Mana Drains) and when Incinerate had just been newly printed. The deck was more flexible than the Blue/White control decks because using red instead of white allowed an easier transition into offense. Since then, this deck has gone through many versions—some sporting beatdown spells such as Man O’War, Frenetic Efreet, Suq’Ata Lancer and Memory Lapse while others at times went creatureless, and some even maindecking Diminishing Returns and Fireblast against Necropotence—but the versatile counterburn philosophy has largely remained the same.

The Rath block gave the card that changed this deck type, however: the Shard Phoenix. The more powerful but more cumbersome predecessor of Squee, its power was soon discovered by mad deckbuilder Erik Lauer to be greater off the board with its synergy with Forbid from the same block. Mixed with decks sporting as much as 28 land, the CounterPhoenix deck rose in the Rath block and then in Type II tournaments in its time.

At heart, however, the CounterPhoenix deck is still the same well-loved blue/red deck with a few extra twists, and applies itself nicely to Type I play.

Rakso’s casual CounterPhoenix Deck, tuned to a creature-heavy environment
Counters(11)
4 Mana Drain (4 Counterspell)
4 Forbid
2 Force of Will
1 Quash (or another “fun” card)

Burn (8)
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Earthquake
1 Hammer of Bogardan (or another “fun” card)

Creatures (9)
4 Shard Phoenix
3 Ophidian
2 Masticore

Utility (7)
3 Impulse
1 Recall
1 Fork
2 Nevinyrral’s Disk

Mana (25)
1 Sol Ring
4 Thawing Glaciers
3 Wasteland
1 Strip Mine
6 Mountain
10 Island

The immortal Phoenix
The deck functions much like the traditional counterburn: Use burn spells, Earthquake and Nevinyrral’s Disk to destroy what your opponent plays, counter dangerous cards you cannot neutralize with burn and Disk, then take control and outdraw your opponent. Eventually, an animated land or a large creature would be played under a small wall of counterspells, sealing the victory.

The CounterPhoenix, however, greases this strategy with the Shard Phoenix, on which Zvi Mowshowitz once wrote: “I believe Buehler said it best at GP:Boston: ‘The Phoenix is the most amazing creature ever, except maybe Hypnotic Specter. It's my creature control, it's my card economy, it's my way to win.’ With Forbid, it's amazing. As a creature killer, it's excellent. It almost can't be permanently killed. If you survive and you have mana, the Phoenix will eventually win you the game.”

The creature control aspect is the bird’s use as an overcosted Earthquake (especially when used with Mana Drain) early on. The full potential of this creature as a blocker, however, is less obvious. Remember that it flies and can kill 4-toughness non-flying attackers by assigning damage before it sacrifices itself, and can kill even larger creatures when backed by Bolts. It can then resurrect to block again (which is important because it makes the Disk perfect for CounterPhoenix, since the deck mainly has no permanents except the resurrecting Phoenixes).

However, one rarely plays the Phoenix unless necessary to stop a creature threat. The true power of the Phoenix, like Squee, is off the board. With three red mana and a Phoenix, a player can use Forbid and the normal card draw to counter one spell each turn. Later, with two Phoenixes, the Forbid buyback cost becomes Buyback: RRRRRR. Thus, one does not play a Phoenix unless needed, and this Forbid strategy is backed by Ophidian (and Hammer of Bogardan, to a lesser extent).

Shard Phoenix’s synergy with Forbid is the reason why no other mana-intensive card drawers (or non-Ophidian) are used. Finally, you also get card advantage by discarding Phoenix when you need to (Masticore, Recall or a full hand due to Thawing Glaciers). You’ll get it back later, anyway.

The card advantage aspect of the Phoenix is best illustrated by old Type II CounterPhoenix decks, which used Brainstorm and returned two Phoenixes on top of the library, then used Intuition to reshuffle the library and return the Phoenixes into the graveyard, where they could then be returned to the hand. Just remember that Phoenixes must be returned to hand before you draw, something an unfamiliar player easily forgets.

Of course, the Phoenix is still a 2/2 flyer, and when you are in control, have a full hand and have nothing else to do, play a couple of Phoenixes and attack.

As a final note, remember to sacrifice your Phoenix when it is targeted by Capsize with buyback and other nastier spells such as Swords to Plowshares and Eradicate.

The Phoenix has been surpassed in the card advantage department by Squee, Goblin Nabob (the best card in Magic that should never get played), and it removes the Phoenix upkeep. I did not include the Goblin legend, however, because I wanted the utility of the Phoenix and free up slots for other spells. The deck has Phoenix, Ophidian and even a Hammer to fuel discards, and I have not yet run into trouble with the mana.

The nuances of the land mix
Thawing Glaciers was never Type II legal at the same time as the Phoenix, but there is no better land for a deck that was so mana intensive that some versions ran 28 land. A note, however: It is probably better to play two Islands before playing Glaciers, unless you know your opponent’s strategy or are going first. The latter rule is because if you are going second, the Glaciers will return to your hand and force you to discard a card.

Note how the land mix is tuned for the Glaciers. The deck only has six Mountains, which, using Glaciers is just enough to recur two Phoenixes a turn. This is because the deck can run with one red mana, if not for the Phoenixes. Large quantities of blue mana are more important, and Glaciers allow the deck to use the least number of Mountains. Volcanic Islands are not used to maximize the Glaciers, but they would fit in quite well.

Strip Mine and Wastelands are standard toys, useful for everything from destroying Library of Alexandria and pesky man-lands to one of only two blue sources an opponent left untapped for a Counterspell. You can use your own man-lands, but the land count would have to be increased as there are only 4 Glaciers and 16 actual colored mana sources in this deck.

Thawing Glaciers is so important that players used to mulligan to get one in the opening hand. As a final note, you will find yourself Thawing in your opponent’s end phase just before you untap, but later in the game where you have more mana, it is more useful to Thaw during your upkeep to decrease the chances of drawing land. Especially when you have two Thawing Glaciers in hand, Mountains and Islands that you draw normally become rather useless and are used as Forbid fodder.

One land that I really enjoyed in counterburn, by the way, was Maze of Ith. It forces a player to overextend and play more creatures, which plays right into Disk, Earthquake and Phoenix.

The classic blue/red Counterburn strategy
Note that you only have a limited amount of everything. Thus, the counters in the deck are used sparingly, only on things that you cannot destroy otherwise with your burn spells and Disks. For example, you would counter nasty things such as a Stroke of Genius, Ancestral Recall or Armageddon when playing most decks with a significant counter component, but would you counter a second-turn Birds of Paradise?

Playing Draw-Go, you might, to control the opponent’s mana and his ability to play more spells than you can counter later on. Playing CounterPhoenix, you have less counters and cannot afford to waste any, so just Disk away the creatures later on.

The same is true of the bolts: Use them only on things that you need to. If your opponent plays a couple of Elves, for example, you will probably want to just leave them alone and cast Earthquake, Disk or Phoenix a couple of turns later. Note that you have just a little of everything, so you make each card hurt (and CounterPhoenix hurts aggressive weenie decks bad, by the way).

Of course, you will want to bolt something that can do significant damage early, such as a first-turn Hypnotic Specter, Savannah Lions or Jackal Pup. And, if your opponent has no creatures, unload the bolts on him during his end phase. Remember to play your instants at the last possible moment, by the way, such as during combat instead of during your main phase.

Finally, remember that if you have Mana Drains, you can play your formidable mass destruction (Earthquake, Disk and Phoenix) much earlier than normally possible.

The Phoenix supporting cast
Many CounterPhoenix decks played nothing but the Phoenix (though some for Tempest Block play used Mogg Fanatic for its utility as an early blocker and its synergy with Portcullis) because it could survive the Disk. Many counterburn decks of the past benefited greatly from Disks because they had few permanents of their own, including creatures. Some older ones, for example, used Mishra’s Factory.

The CounterPhoenix deck used here uses two more utility creatures well worth their slots. Masticore fits this deck perfectly as it survives Disk, can use Phoenix to pay for its upkeep, can kill off an opposing weenie army (including Soltari Priests) and can kill an opponent faster than normal. The last reason prompted me to replace a Disk and a Treachery in my original deck. Note that Masticores can even be cast early with a Mana Drain.

Ophidian is not favored by some such as Azhrei because they die to the Disk, but their free draw ability is so useful and they pay for themselves after the first use. They also survive Phoenix. Note that when you have a hand that is full and full of spells that you plan to use, start dealing damage with the Ophidian. The one damage it does quickly adds up.

There has been a debate between Ophidian and Thieving Magpie, as the latter flies and deals damage. In general, however, Ophidian is favored for its lower casting cost, allowing it to be a cheap blocker if needed. Magpie’s flying is less relevant in Type I where there are less creatures and the damage is irrelevant to a deck that aims to take control before it worries about dealing damage.

There are a few other creatures that could fit (such as Morphling, Palinchron, Rainbow Efreet and other big attackers) but these seem to be the best aside from Gorilla Shaman and Dwarven Miner in power Type I.

Other notes
Some spells are fairly self-explanatory, such as Fork (which copies anything you need, including counters) and Recall (which can bring back a Forbid when a second is not drawn or a finisher when there is an opening).

Impulse is easily one of the favorite blue spells of all time, and use it during your opponent’s end phase as soon as you can. It basically gels your draws, and do not feel that it is a waste to pick a land if you need it. Early on, you will be using Impulse to cycle into control cards such as a counter or Earthquake and passing over later-game cards such as Masticore.

Quash is rather fun to use due to its surprise value and ability to strip a part of the opponent’s deck (since CounterPhoenix plays a longer game, the loss of Quashed spells is usually felt). You will not understand this fully until you have Quashed all the Mana Drains or Forces of Will in a deck with only 8 counters. Hammer of Bogardan speeds up a kill when needed and substitutes for a Phoenix if necessary.

(Obviously, these two cards, were thrown in because I like them, and you can replace the two slots with something else you like, such as more Disks.)

Making changes
In general, there are not a lot of other cards that you will want to use. You will not want to use mana intensive card advantage spells such as Whispers of the Muse, Jayemdae Tome or Treasure Trove, but you could work in utility such as Stroke of Genius and Treasure Trove (other tricks from Misdirection to Desertion are usually fun, by the way, in casual play).

Other tricks are actually replaced by Type I choices, such as the Brainstorm/Intuition trick by Thawing Glaciers. Scroll Rack was used in Tempest Block versions, but the Disk is far more important. Two common variations could be to add Capsize for use with the Disk (though it is less useful because you can Disk then counter the cards that follow) and use Powder Keg instead of Disk (does not sweep the board but works better with Ophidian).

When customizing a deck, you will generally just be increasing one aspect of the deck at the expense of another. You could add a set of Incinerates, for example. (CounterPhoenix, though, seems to be one of those decks that your just can’t customize as much and the best versions will tend to be quite close to one another.)

When adding more counters, you will be sticking to the 2-mana and 3-mana plays. Logical additions to the deck are the plain Counterspells, then Mana Leak, Miscalculation or Dissipate. (DO NOT PLAY ARCANE DENIAL AS IT GIVES YOUR OPPONENT CARDS). Force Spike and Disrupt are also used when first-turn counter ability is absolutely necessary, but this is less important due to the availability of Force of Will. Force Spike is also less useful over Disrupt due to all the creaturekill in the deck.

Historical notes
CounterPhoenix by Randy Buehler, about January 1999
4 Shock
3 Mogg Fanatic
1 Incinerate
4 Shard Phoenix
4 Intuition
4 Counterspell
4 Forbid
2 Mana Leak
4 Brainstorm
4 Nevinyrral's Disk
14 Island
8 Mountain
4 Reflecting Pool
SB:
3 Shattering Pulse
1 Mogg Fanatic
3 Portcullis
4 Pyroblast
4 pro-red/regenerating creature answers or Hydroblasts - your meta-game = your call

CounterPhoenix by Randy Buehler, 2nd in Grand Prix-Boston and 3rd in Grand Prix-Lisbon
4 Reflecting Pool
14 Island
10 Mountain
4 Mana Leak
4 Counterspell
4 Forbid
4 Dismiss
4 Shock
1 Mogg Fanatic
4 Shard Phoenix
4 Intuition
3 Capsize
2 Scroll Rack

As a final note, due to the prevalence of Soltari Priest in the Tempest Block Constructed environment, some players actually used Fylamarid (which turned creatures blue, allowing Shard Phoenix to get around protection from red) instead of the popular anti-shadow, Torture Chamber. Another card used by Randy Buehler against the Priest was Thalakos Drifters, which was a 3/3 creature that gained shadow if you discarded a card.

Read More Articles by Oscar Tan aka Rakso!

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