Phyrexian Arena is BAD.

Commander (EDH) forum

Posted on Jan. 29, 2019, 9:46 a.m. by SynergyBuild

Okay, clickbaity title, but yes, I firmly believe that Phryexian Arena, EDH verified staple, is a piece of cardboard worth nearly nothing to most decks that use it, and the sleek Night's Whisper or more versatile Sign in Blood is better in aggressively costed combo lists and storm decks, Read the Bones is better in midrange, and even in control, a larger draw spell that is an instant, think Ad Nauseam is just so much better.

Even aggro decks woul rather a proactive possible threat that pressures life totals over time, like Dark Confidant or Mindblade Render , and the arena isn't powerful enough in nearly any of these decks to warrant the inclusion.

Want a grindy engine, or have enchantment shenanagins? Greed , Necropotence , etc. are still better.


Now onto why these are all so much better, and why poeople like the Arena, but it is still bad. It is that Phyrexian Arena looks like a draw 2 per turn, however it is a possible only draw 1. You draw 2, but 1 you'd already get. It also, if removed on an opponent's turn, doesn't draw you anything, leading to card disadvantage. It takes 1 whole turn cycle just to be a cycler that loses a life and costs 3, and 2 turn cycles (8 turns) before it is as good as Night's Whisper , but costs more, and at turn cycle 3 (12 turns in) it gets the powerful effect of the 3 mana draw 3, lose 3 life, on a 3 turn suspend. Impressively bad for an effect like that. Read the Bones is more splashable, doesn't suspend, looks at possibly more cards, and loses 1 less life. Dark Confidant / Mindblade Render costs less and have a creature attached and do about the same things, with more use in creature-abusing decks, perhaps being sacrificed later to a Attrition for more advantage need be, who knows.

At turn cycle 4 (16 turns in), it gets the 4 mana draw 4 suspend 4, lose 4, which doesn't draw as much as a Moonlight Bargain , you need to be on turn cycle 5 (20 turns in) for that luxury, and with Ad Nauseam , you'd often draw 20 more cards in the single turn. See how that it bad? Especially in a color combination with many better, still generally bad card enginess that do basically the same thing. Dark Tutelage is more splashable, Greed draws more, Necropotence draws more, Mindblade Render is cheaper, more splashable, with more synergies, Dark Confident does basically the same as the Render, etc. etc.

It is often compared to the black Sylvan Library , but that is cheaper and actually draws 2 cards, twice the work of the Arena. It isn't even in the same ball park of card advantage as the library.

This was all off of the top of my head, yet, Phyrexian Arena is considered a staple, almost exclusively played in EDH, and is just not a good card despite that. Theater of Horros, a new red added variant to the Arena, at least when you have infinite mana wins the game, and has synergies with effects like discard.


The only real time I have seen some use to the Arena is in stax decks that use a lot of the other options too. Mono-Black Stax often resorts to a lot of mass discard, think Oppression , Bottomless Pit , Necrogen Mists , etc. to empty everyone's hand turn after turn. Using Arena, Tutelage, Confidant, Render, Necro, and Greed all allow the stax deck to fish through it's deck and break parity on these stax lists, even if it takes 10 turns to make them worth it.


Thoughts? Am I just not seeing it properly, or is it truely bad?

SynergyBuild says... #2

Oh god I wrote Phyrexian Tower not Arena. I feel really dumb.

I <3 Tower

January 29, 2019 9:48 a.m.

LittleBlueHero says... #3

Thank you for making a well thought out argument against Phyrexian Arena rather than just coming in here and saying, it sucks don't play it.

I will admit, while I don't run it in every deck I have it in a few and after reading your post will definitely consider the value of it against some of the one time effects like Read the Bones . The one thing I can say is that card draw is always good, even when its not the best, and I always try and find around 10 ish spells that will put me up at least a card in my Commander decks.

There are times where Phyrexian Arena fits the bill and "another way to draw cards". Thanks again for the food for thought!

January 29, 2019 10:05 a.m.

Agent_Fire says... #4

I think Arena is not as good as some people think it is. However, in slower playgroups, it great, as it causes a stream of card advantage. Additionally, you have to think about the one-time mana investment that you have to put into Arena, compared to other cards.

January 29, 2019 10:08 a.m.

SynergyBuild says... #5

Agent_Fire the only card I mentioned that makes you put in more mana is Greed , a card I don't like much more than Arena, yet still think is better. Excluding the life loss of both cards, Greed lets you hold up answers, then immediately dump in a bunch of excess mana on the endstep of the opponent's turn right before yours if you didn't need to cast the Dismember or whatever was in your hand. This means the mana wouldn't have been spent either way, and is particularly useful in control builds, the normally only deck that wants Arena over a one-time draw spell.

Is it more useful than Arena though it the question, bringing back in life loss, which does in fact matter (not a ton, but over time it does definitely affect many games), to evaluate a card, the card even better than Arena again, I have seen Arena kill 2 players alone, and often loosen life totals enough, dealing ~8 loss of life to an opponent, enough to be killed in combat more times than I can count. It is something Greed could do, if a player was too Greedy, but doesn't force the draw/loss of life, and so doesn't kill them if they are set to 1 life in combat on their next turn, they just don't activate it.

The card draw also can happen the turn it comes out, given the player has enough mana, and doesn't force a player to immediately drop it if they can't activate it. You don't lose card advantage in folds by waiting on a turn you'd otherwise use up all of your mana. It gives more flexibility in midrange and control lists for this reason. In combo, it is also better, with infinite mana you draw 15 or so cards off of it, and if you are digging for a combo, it can often draw 5 cards if all you are doing is digging and nothing else the turn after you cast it. This is assuming turn 4 was when it was dropped and just swamps for lands, etc. but still is a major point to Greed's mass usability in comparison to Arena's.

Overall, Greed is still a better card despite it needing multiple payments.

January 29, 2019 10:19 a.m.

Azdranax says... #6

Agree on all points - unfortunately it's an EDHREC all-star, as of the current top 10 commanders on that site, six of which include black, it's included as either a top enchantment choice or even a signature card in five of those six (excluding only Muldrotha). As you've pointed out, the card is clearly overvalued for the desired effect of card draw, despite the slow and inefficient method by which it achieves it. Some would probably argue that due to its subdued payoff, it's not a major target for removal, but that in and of itself should tell those who play it how much value it really has...if your opponent doesn't care about it, maybe the player playing it shouldn't either. As you suggest, they could find a more immediate draw option, or an option with better payoff for the timing needed.

January 29, 2019 10:43 a.m.

DiverDown says... #7

Preach. My Notion Thief thanks any and all Phyrexian Arena players for the extra cards.

January 29, 2019 11 a.m.

LordBlackblade says... #8

I see two possible origins for the “hype” around the card.

First, I think it could be that Phyrexian Arena ’s ubiquity in the EDH community could be a lingering effect from the founding of the format. In the format’s infancy, I could definitely see people running this gladly thinking it an all-star. Over time it just sort of develops that reputation as one of the cards you have to run. Word-of-mouth helps spread the idea that it’s a staple and boom there it is.

My second thought is more straightforward, and that is that Phyrexian Arena is repeatable. A lot of deck design/card choice philosophy guides (especially for less competitive EDH) really hammer the idea that repeatable effects are very powerful in the format due to its singleton nature.

On a personal level, I’ve been experimenting with replacing Phyrexian Arena with cards like Read the Bones . The results have been generally favorable. Unless arena comes out super early in a long game, it loses to other draw cards quite easily.

January 29, 2019 1:23 p.m.

Dmany says... #9

This just comes to wanting either cards now or set up an engine in case of a long game. Read the bones is good for digging the turn you draw it when you desperately need to find something. While arena is a do nothing the turn it enters for the same price. It's 1 extra per turn. Instead of going 4 deep on the turn you cast read you end up going 4 deep over 2 turns conserving Mana for what you may draw. I'd still run both. I'm currently on a draw engines plan for my decks. I want repeatable draw effects so I can out value in case of a long game. Like cards like necropotense is a great engine like greed and erebos. Or even sacrifice draw engines. They are easier to stop from getting vapsue but gain far more over the course of the game. Still good write up.

January 29, 2019 1:23 p.m.

griffstick says... #10

Player preference of course. It also comes down mostly on how low your mana curve is. So arena speaks to the largest group of edh players. And that's the new players and 1 to 2 yr casual players. I say this because. New to 2 yr casual players often don't burn through there hand fast enough. So one card a turn is perfect. One card a turn keeps your hand full at 7 cards for most of the game. One card a turn helps you get a land drop every turn. Think about a casual game with Howling Mine in play.

Now all those other cards mentioned are competitive card style SynergyBuild. So Greed and Necropotence are cards that when you play then you DIG real deep for your combo then assemble your combo and win. So back to my first point. Most players don't play competitive and burn through there hand. Most players mana curve in not low. Most players want to cast big cool spells to win, 7 plus mana spells. On the others hand for competitive players they want to cast several spells to win and that's why arena is bad to competitive players. In a competitive game it's over on turn 3 to turn 7 in a causal game it's over turn 8 to turn 14

January 29, 2019 2:20 p.m.

CrimsonKing says... #11

It's a great casual card and useful in slow grindy decks. I personally don't use it since it's too slow.

January 29, 2019 4:08 p.m.

Hourof says... #12

It's useful because of 2 extra devotion in my Phenax deck. But in other decks like Aminatou where I'm trying to combo I run Night's Whisper instead.

January 29, 2019 4:38 p.m.

SynergyBuild says... #13

Dmany this is wrong, it takes 4 turn cycles, not 2, you'd get half those cards off of the one per turn either way, a point my whole argument was based on, yet you seemed to miss. It is a falacy that Arena is twice the card draw you'd normally get, it is the exact same, only after it is dropped. This draw 4 cards in 2 turns isn't the same as seeing 4 cards off of one card in one turn with no delay, and then 6 in 2 turns, if you are counting draws.

griffstick I was never solely talking cEDH, where Greed is trash, Arena is trash, and so are most of the cards I mentioned, like Read the Bones , etc. 2 mana card draw like Night's Whisper is weak, and Ad Nauseam rules all. Claiming my argument is on another power level is really weird for an argument against it, when it clearly isn't.

Now onto the notion that 7 mana splashy plays are the casual EDH game. Cool. Someone doesn't burn through their hand fast, like many midrange or control lists, but does it just fast enough to want to run card draw at all. Given these, Phyrexian Arena fails miserably. It isn't a splashy play at all, think about Read the Bones or Ad Nauseam , those DO something, not grind out at a snail's pace, that isn't splashy, and is less than half of a 7 mana play.

Oh, but it helps them hit land drops. Assuming mono-black, Necropotence is better with all of that. It is splashier, it is going to fill the hand perfectly if you need, and hits lands. It is 10x better than Necropotence . Assuming cards over 3 mana are an issue with the land drop thing, yet by the fact you think low mana curves aren't a casual thing despite the Savannah Lions and other aggro deck's cards at casual tables always exist, 3 is the sweet spot. Assuming the deck has a weak landbase, as casual decks often do, so Arena or Necropotence may be hard, Dark Tutelage is better. It is cheaper, more fun with the reveals and sometimes winning the life loss by hitting a land, or making a memorable flip on an Emrakul, the Promised End, etc. it can be much more fun. It also costs less than a 15th of the cost of Arena, better for Casual players. It is easier on the landbase, etc. etc. etc.

I have yet to see a well-made deck (casual, budget, competitive, etc.) that really, honestly wants Arena in any slot other than a secondary, worse copy of another card.

CrimsonKing Really, what is great about it? An overpriced piece of cardboard that isn't all that good in any situation I have seen isn't... great IMO.

Hourof Run Necropotence , wait, you are in blue, use Notion Thief or... any better card draw?

January 29, 2019 6:07 p.m.

DiverDown says... #14

Go blue for Rhystic Study and Mystic Remora any day. I once netted over ten cards off of the fish over three turn cycles, paying for two cumulative upkeep costs for a total mana investment of four mana over the course of three turns and nobody paid to prevent me from drawing. Ain't that some value there fellas.

January 29, 2019 6:20 p.m.

Vman says... #15

Yes it is bad! And i tell my friends too! But i believe it is popular because its easy

Diesnt require thinking, smack it down and draw cards.

You dont have to think deep in the tank about lifeloss like Necropotence or even Sign in Blood variants (which are way better)

Its just easy. Smack it down and draw. Great apeal to newer players

January 29, 2019 10:13 p.m.

SynergyBuild says... #16

Really? It is easier than Night's Whisper ? How many triggers do new players forget. It isn't like Howling Mine with an additional draw, it is on upkeep, a distinctly different step than the draw step, and while Necro is more complex, Arena ain't easy in comparison to Night's Whisper IMO.

January 30, 2019 11:23 a.m.

Vman says... #17

Newer players feel bad about 2 life, really i notice it alot. 1 life over turns just feels something they can do withiut hesitation.

January 31, 2019 7:57 a.m.

DiverDown says... #18

One time a new player targeted me with Sign in Blood and I had to take a second to stop and ask if they were sure they wanted to do that haha.

January 31, 2019 8:08 a.m.

JuQ says... #19

It's all about your meta's average game length, in my meta games last easily 10 or more turns so its ok if you get it early or mid game.
In sorcery I like Painful Truths but you would usually need a three or more color deck.

January 31, 2019 2:53 p.m.

SynergyBuild says... #20

Okay, so over 10 turns you easily have the time to set up cheaper and more powerful engines. Imagine 10 turns of Necropotence for an exact mana relationship. That is enough value to kill with ease.

February 1, 2019 12:17 p.m.

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