Burn in Modern has had its highs and lows. It has bounced between tier 1 and tier 2 for almost the entirety of the format, finally cementing itself as a tier 1 strategy as of late on the backs of new additions from recent sets. The deck is a combo deck that doesn’t have a combo: its “combo” is counting to 20 quickly and efficiently. Seen as a “noob” deck due to its (usually) low cost of entry and barrier of play, its (mostly) non interactive nature has relegated it to the corner of the room with the likes of Bogles and friends.
While most of these opinions are half-truths, the deck has a lot of areas where you can squeeze out percentage points that put it further ahead of most strategies in Modern. Coupled with poor deckbuilding and weak card selection, this “easy” deck is often not played to its full potential. Having played Burn since the formats infancy, including several GP money finishes with it, I feel I can offer some deeper insight into an archetype that players often assume is far simpler than it actually is.
Examining the List
Most players would assume a typical Burn list consists of only the lowest costed burn spells and most efficient, guaranteed damage creatures; it actually isn’t that simple. Let’s take a look at what I would consider the stock list:
Burn, by Will Archer
4 Goblin Guide
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Monastery Swiftspear
2 Grim Lavamancer
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Boros Charm
4 Searing Blaze
2 Lightning Helix
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Sacred Foundry
2 Stomping Ground
1 Wooded Foothills
4 Destructive Revelry
3 Kor Firewalker
2 Path to Exile
2 Deflecting Palm
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Rending Volley
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I would be extremely hesitant to change anything in the main deck above. Let’s touch on some questions I’ve been asked about card choices and alternate options.
Lava Spike, Rift Bolt and Lightning Bolt are an automatic four-of. Lightning Bolt is the best burn spell printed, and its two friends are the closest we have come to replicating this in Modern. The same goes for Boros Charm and Skullcrack: Boros Charm being a rare two mana for four damage, and Skullcrack having the extremely helpful life gain prevention clause while maintaining a reasonable CMC-to-damage ratio. Searing Blaze is an absurd card when it is relevant. You will have some games where it is merely a two-mana/three-damage spell, but the risk/reward ratio is far too great to drop these down to less than three copies. As for the two flex spots, I usually lean towards Lightning Helix, but other options are available.
The creature suite is also near-unchangeable. Goblin Guide is absurd, and Monastery Swiftspear can do a very good impression. Eidolon of the Great Revel on turn two can sometimes do upwards of six damage in such a low cost-centric format. Grim Lavamancer fails the “always do damage” test, but its value against any creature decks, as well as providing “free” damage if he lives, warrants his inclusion.
Lands are a very important, and an often overlooked, part of Burn. A minimum of eight fetches is recommended: you need to be able to reliably fix your mana, provide fuel for Grim Lavamancer and have access to landfall whenever needed for Searing Blaze. If possible, play four Scalding Tarn. Leading with a Tarn, especially if you don’t make a turn one play, can occasionally make your opponent put you on another deck and make incorrect plays.
The Cards That Didn’t Make the Cut
I’m constantly asked about Vexing Devil. The second you give the opponent a choice, the card loses its potency. I don’t want to be staring at a board full of creatures and draw a Vexing Devil instead of another burn spell; neither do you. Consistency is how we win.
I have tested the Atarka’s Command version extensively and have come to the conclusion that the upside of the card is not worth the mana issues it can cause. With such a low land count, Burn needs to be able to operate on two lands. Having to always fetch a Stomping Ground + Sacred Foundry immediately, while shocking yourself, opens you up to the same problem the rest of the format has: the amount of damage taken to fix your mana. While you gain percentage against many decks in the format, plus being Skullcrack five through eight, you open yourself up to losing to the other aggressive decks, and the mirror match becomes far worse. I feel the consistency of R/W outweighs the power level of this card.
Shard Volley can easily be run in the flex spot, but I would caution against more than one. You want this to be the last spell you cast, outside of flooding scenarios.Wild Nacatl is easily splashed, but it fails’s the Burn deck mantra – be outstanding or do guaranteed damage. While a 3/3 for one is good, it doesn’t always do damage and strains the mana base. Pass.
While the cost to damage ratio on Magma Jet is poor at best, the scry 2 changes a lot of things. The closest card we have to damage combined with card draw, scrying is still merely card selection. While not an awful choice, the card is really only great when you are scrying two unwanted Mountains to the bottom. It’s inclusion is a debate that probably has no right or wrong answer. The consistentcy argument can go both ways in selection versus damage. My personal choice: I would be hard pressed to find cuts for it.
Some of the biggest mistakes I see with the deck concern extremely poor sideboarding choices. When building a sideboard for a deck with such a consistent game plan, your first concern needs to be maintaining consistency. Sure, Path to Exile is great against Wurmcoil Engine, but when you side in four and see three in your opening hand, it starts to look pretty bad.
The cards in your board need to either continue your game plan (do damage to the opponent), fix a problem that is near impossible to beat (Leyline of Sanctity, Kor Firewalker), or give you the time you need to get enough draw steps to win. With that being said, outside of an extremely large metagame shift (or one where everyone plays Soul Sisters) , I would recommend the sideboard listed above.Destructive Revelry is the reason for the small green splash. Dealing with all of the problem enchantments, the plentiful Modern artifacts, as well as the damage bonus makes this an all-star in plenty of matchups. It’s perfect sideboard material. Kor Firewalker is me admitting the mirror match sucks. Whoever can keep one alive is usually a lock to win. Path to Exile is your best removal against creatures that are innately hard to deal with. (Wurmcoil Engine, Deceiver Exarch, Kor Firewalker, etc.)
Deflecting Palm is my favorite “Oops, gotcha!” card. Amazing against Tron (targeting a desperate Wurmcoil attack is wonderful), Affinity, Infect, double-striking Primeval Titan, there are too many uses to list them all!Relic of Progenitus may seem odd, but it can be a workhorse that will always replace itself. Shrinking Tarmogoyf, preventing early Anglers/Tasigurs, lowering Snapcaster’s value, and interrupting any other random graveyard based decks makes this a quiet all-star. Rending Volley is a concession to Splinter Twin being a deck. Volley can be easily dropped if/when Twins metagame percentage drops, but it’s a lifesaver in a lot of cases.
Other common sideboard cards I’ve tested include Molten Rain (great against Amulet but dangerous at three CMC), and Blood Moon (same problem: three CMC is worrisome). As always, board to your local meta, but I always think in terms of playing at a larger event.
Next Level Playing Tips
General Deck Tips
- Think in terms of draw steps: You win by maximizing the amount of cards you draw while your opponent can’t kill you. Practice calculating odds in your head. Always play to your outs and calculate the odds of drawing one out versus another based on how many draw steps you’ll gain from each play.
- Sequence your spells properly: When possible, cast the most expensive spells first. Play Eidolon of the Great Revel as early as possible. Be careful you don’t Eidolon lock yourself against creature decks you can’t attack into.
- Avoid the ‘EoT’ Trap: One of the biggest mistakes new Burn players make is believing that all instants need to be cast at the end of your opponent’s turn. Instead, consider each specific scenario; I have no hesitation main phasing burn on my turn, if they are tapped out, to avoid countermagic.
- Mulligan aggressively: I always mulligan five (or more) land hands. I also mulligan four-land hands if I’m not on the play and don’t have a turn one creature. I almost always keep one-land hands with at least one-two plays, especially on the draw. You have a roughly 60 percent chance to draw the second land by the second draw step.
- Identify your role early: Know when you are the beatdown and when you are the control deck. Against the hyper-aggressive creature-based decks (Affinity and Infect) you are almost always the control deck. They will run out of relevant creatures before you run out of burn.
- Be patient: If you have lethal, wait as long as possible without putting yourself in a position to lose. You don’t want to be the guy who bolted his opponent at 3 life only to see them Lightning Helix in response. Quoting the timeless D3: The Mighty Ducks – “Make him make the first move, Conway!”
- Play around Snapcaster: Against any Snapcaster decks, respond to a counterspell with additional burn spells while the counter is still on the stack instead of waiting for the counter to resolve. This avoids having the same counterspell “snapped back” at another of your spells. Dispel only costs one mana, so “four mana” could counter two spells if you walk into it.
- Dodge lifelink: You can prevent lifegain from any lifelink creature by killing a blocker in response. Grim Lavamancer plus any other creatures can give you multiple turns of blocking a Wurmcoil Engine (it can even kill itself to buy more time).
- Accept the hate: Don’t get dejected when losing unwinnable games. Some people just hate losing to Burn and have upwards of eight sideboard slots against it. Take solace in the fact that they are sacrificing a large amount of other matchups to make this one better.
Single Card Tips
- Skullcrack (#1): The second text line is extremely relevant. ‘Damage cannot be prevented this turn’ allows your Goblin Guide to trade with an Etched Champion or Kor Firewalker blocking it.
- Skullcrack (#2): If you suspect life gain effects, save your Skullcrack as long as possible. If you don’t have one, telegraph you do. Life gain can be the biggest swing against Burn. People really don’t want to walk Timely Reinforcements or Lightning Helix into Skullcrack. Even the fear of the card is enough to put them off a play long enough to swing a game in your favor.
- Eidolon of the Great Revel: Cast Eidolon pre-combat if you are attacking with a Goblin Guide and expect removal on it. This forces them to use it before getting a “free” Goblin Guide trigger.
- Searing Blaze: If you don’t have a fetchland in play, hold lands in hand in case you need to trigger a Blaze.
- Boros Charm: Charm can be more than just four damage: the other modes can be relevant too. In rare cases, double strike can cause more damage or allow you to remove a problematic creature or blocker. The indestructible clause applies to ALL of your permanents. You can make your lands survive a timely Stone Rain effect that would cut you off a colored mana source you need.
This matchup is very skill intensive for both players. You need to apply pressure while holding back your burn in case you need to waste two spells on an Exarch. Do not tap out (or even come close to tapping out) if your Twin opponent has open mana. Always prepare for Dispel and try to hold up your cheapest spells that can target a creature in case they go for it.
Watch out for Batterskull post-board. Path to Exile can be brought in if you feel they are still on the combo plan. Feel free to bring in more Revelry if you see Spellskites. Never trust that one removal spell, for a creature or an enchantment, will be enough.
Grixis (Delve or Twin)
Grixis is a very good matchup for Burn. Eidolon is a house, their manabase is painful, and early creatures keep them off great mana-fixing options.
You lose this matchup to an early delve threat you can’t answer. Relic keeps them off early creatures as well as downgrading Snapcaster into an Ambush Viper. Cash it in when you need the card or to keep them off certain cards in the yard.
Early Tarmogoyf into Siege Rhinos are how you lose this matchup. Keep up Skullcrack whenever possible, and watch how you play Eidolon of the Great Revel. Eventually you can get locked out of playing anything when they start chaining Rhinos and swinging with manlands.
On the draw, Eidolon is often too slow to do any good. Once a 3/4 Goyf hits the board, Eidolon is stonewalled and you are looking at having to waste it plus a burn spell to get Goyf off the board. It’s enchantment type is also another card type to make Goyf larger. Relic shrinks Goyf and takes away the value of Lingering Souls.
Whoever draws better will usually win this awful mirror match. On the bright side, you’ll have time to get lunch.
Deflecting Palm Kor Firewalker Path to Exile Kor Firewalker is the trump: landing one is usually enough to win and two is near unbeatable. Path to Exile is the answer to Firewalker; don’t be tempted to waste it on anything else.
Eidolon is awful against a deck that pukes out its hand, so don’t make the mistake of leaving them in. Searing Blaze and Destructive Revelry will put in a ton of work. Save Skullcracks for Vault Skirges. Palm can stop a huge plating swing, but watch out for the instant speed equip.
You are not the beat down here: cast your removal on your turn, sandbag as many targeted burn spells as you can, and grind them out. They will run out of creatures before you run out of burn spells.
Arguably Burn’s hardest match up, this is “two ships passing in the night”. You need to race as hard as possible and don’t look back. If you can blow up an Amulet quickly, snap it off. Deflecting Palm can fling a giant Titan attack back at them, just be prepared for Pact of Negation. Save your Skullcracks and watch out for Thragtusk after boarding.
A great matchup for Burn: you should beat them with all but the slowest hands. The only worries are a turn three Karn Liberated or Wurmcoil Engine. Path answers Engine or Deflecting Palm buys you a turn plus a huge damage swing. Bring in Revelry on the play to occasionally catch an Expedition Map before they can search or to blow up Spellskites.
Once you are running an efficient list, you can gain the most percentage points against the field by playing the deck to near perfection. Sequencing, calculating odds, and knowing exactly how to play around cards gives the Burn pilot tons of room for growth. Learn the format; learn your cards; and pounce on mistakes, misplays, and stumbles. When played to near perfection, Burn is one of the least variance-affected decks in the format – a very attractive prospect to long-term winning percentages. Plus, who doesn’t love a turn one Goblin Guide?
Will has played Magic since 1999, his love of the game being forged in the dead of “Combo Winter”. He has recently dedicated his free time to the life of the Magic grinder. A modern enthusiast, he has two Modern GP money finishes and is currently chasing his Pro Tour debut.