Frankly, destruction is best left to professionals.
-Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
Wizards have finally started to treat Australian players to Constructed Grand Prix. In a stroke of good fortune, this upcoming weekend's Grand Prix, GP Melbourne, will take place just a short walk from my apartment.
Opportunities like this don't come along often, so for the past month I have been working with a few friends like mad to test and improve the Boros Burn deck. We started with the stock MTGO lists, read all the articles on the archetype, played a ton of games and then made some changes. After extensive testing and discussion, this article presents our observations and lessons on the archetype.
The biggest mental hurdle was learning to appreciate just how different a Standard-legal burn deck is from an Eternal format burn deck. In those formats, most of your spells cost one mana, while in Standard, most spells cost two and some cost as much as four. Consequently, you are forced to run more land as the deck must cast your spells in a timely fashion—you won't win many games stuck on two land. Unfortunately, this reduces the threat density of the deck while increasing variance as the deck becomes more prone to flooding.
The loss of threat density coupled with the lower power of the spells available in the format fundamentally changes how the archetype operates. It is simply much harder to deal 20 when you're playing cards like Shock. Whereas in other formats a burn deck will always play out the same way, sometimes in Standard you can't present a faster clock than your opponent, and a more controlling game plan will be required. Decks play more creatures in Standard than in the Eternal formats. Some of your starting hands will not have enough burn to quickly kill, and against other aggressive decks, this can necessitate using burn on creatures.
When you are forced down the slippery slope of trading 1-for-1 with a creature, you can almost never win. Every creature they draw has the potential to deal 20 damage by itself whereas every burn spell that you draw has a defined maximum value. Eventually they will force enough damage through while you will not be able to accumulate enough cards to both stay alive and to win.
The new additions from Born of the Gods go a long way toward addressing this problem. If not for their printing, I would not consider this archetype for the Grand Prix. Satyr Firedancer (with burn) and Searing Blood both remove creatures while lowering your opponent's life total, meaning that you can control your opponent's board while still advancing your win condition. Indeed, in testing, we found that several decks could not beat an active Firedancer.
Another way to improve the consistency of the deck is to add some effects to utilize excess mana. One of the differences between the list we settled on and the Standard burn list is that we have the full four Mutavaults. Most lists are running Temple of Silence in place of Mutavault. The difference is substantial, but required a less ambitious mana base.
Early scrylands are nice to improve the sequencing of your plays and quality of your draws, but past two mana you need your extra lands to be doing something valuable. Simply, scry 1 is not as powerful as dealing 2 damage with a Mutavault. When you do trade removal for creatures, Mutavault will be a damage source that allows you to close out the game. With a higher creature count, the list has more game against the format's control decks.
Finally, it became apparent that there simply are not enough quality burn spells available to build a deck without some number of creatures. I discussed the point with Patrick Sullivan and I believe he captured the problem we were finding in testing perfectly: "it is really hard to win without a creature." We eventually went with Ash Zealot as a consistent source of damage that topdecks well going long, but there is some discussion of the alternatives below.
By now I am sure that everyone wants to just see a list, so here it is:
Zemanjaski's Boros Burn for Grand Prix Melbourne
4xTemple of Triumph
4xChained to the Rocks
3xToil and Trouble
Get This Deck
Many of the card selections are standard, so I will try to explain the uncommon choices.
4 Ash Zealot: The choice is between Ash Zealot and Young Pyromancer, and while I am a huge fan of the latter, it is not well positioned currently. Young Pyromancer was great least season against Mono-Black and small creature decks, but now Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow exist and small creature decks are nowhere to be seen (mostly because of the aforementioned cards). The tokens are nice but with two other pivotal matchups not caring about them either (UW Control with Jace, or GR Monsters with huge trampling creatures) this is not the environment for Young Pyromancer. Ash Zealot isn't that much better, but the haste is nice and she improves the quality of your top decks. Her first strike has a lot of synergy with your burn spells, and just the threat of removal usually means that she can go unblocked for a while too.
3 Satyr Firedancer: The card is as good as advertised. If Firedancer stays in play against any creature deck, or even Mono Black, it takes over the game in short order. However, after some discussion, we found that four in the main deck was too many. There are a few reasons. Primarily, there is a cost in time and mana to deploy a Firedancer and often it is too slow to play turn 2 Firedancer, turn 3 Firedancer. Secondly, you would rather have one Firedancer and one burn spell rather than two Firedancers—without a way to turn them on, you're paying a 1/1 for 1R. The only matchup where you would typically want multiples is for Mono Blue, so the final copy found his way into our sideboard.
4 Searing Blood: The upside of this card is too high to not play the full set. Even the purest control decks in the format have targets. For example, UW Control will have Mutavault and Elspeth tokens. Against any other deck, Searing Blood is often the best card. It plays nicely with Ash Zealot (and sometimes Chandra's Phoenix), letting you run into normally problematic cards such as Courser of Kruphix, Frostburn Weird, or Nightveil Specter and still deal some damage to your opponent that turn.
3 Shock: I am a little embarrassed to admit how long it took to make the decision to cut one Shock. I made the common mistake of not having every individual card justify itself—it was not until several of my testing partners pointed out how bad Shock has become in the format that I finally made the change. Last season, when I was playing the PyroRed deck, Shock had more than enough synergy to compensate for its low power level. There were more viable creatures for it to operate as efficient removal, instead of an underpowered Lava Spike. Shock still has some value, and it is useful to be able to kill your own creatures cheaply sometimes (Last Breath on Chandra's Phoenix is a common example), but you cannot justify all four.
2 Boros Guildgate: I know that Guildgates are unpopular, and some may be wondering why I would run these instead of Temple of Silence. While I would love more scrylands, the deck is very red mana hungry and usually cannot win if it does not make two red mana early. The white spells do not need to be cast on curve, so it is acceptable to make white a little later. Lastly, because this is not a curve-out aggro deck, it is typically very easy to sequence plays to avoid the comes-into-play-tapped drawback.
The other notable admission from the main deck is Stormbreath Dragon, which has seem some play in this archetype. The card is not bad by any stretch—it would in fact address many of the concerns raised in the introduction: it is both a high-quality top deck and a repetitive source of damage. Still, five mana is an awful lot in this deck, and from playing a lot of games, we found that often you're aggressively putting lands to the bottom with scry. Having to instead keep lands on top to play a Dragon that you may not draw is not appealing, but not doing so means that sometimes you will have a Dragon that you cannot cast, which probably means that you are losing. To improve consistency, the Dragons had to go.
The sideboard underwent substantial changes too.
Firedrinker Satyr: The deck needed more hitting power against UW Control, and of all the options, Firedrinker Satyr is easily the strongest. Firedrinker is great on turn 1 or even on turn 5. Your own life total is irrelevant so you can pump very aggressively. They can never answer Firedrinker efficiently, which can disrupt their lines, and importantly, the card is very good against Jace. I have liked Firedrinker on the play against Mono Black too, since it often get in a few swings if they have a creature draw (and can attack into Nightveil Specter).
Spark Trooper: Initially we thought that the plan of Chained to the Rocks plus Boros Reckoner would solve GR Monsters, but testing revealed that was not true. Unlike GR Devotion, the Monsters list has access to evasive fliers and trample, which are very good against Reckoner. We found it impossible to build a post-board deck that could play a control game. That leaves trying to race while getting ahead on tempo. Josh Silvestri suggested Spark Trooper and I have been very happy with the results so far. Spark Trooper is also powerful against Mono Blue and fringe creature decks, like GW Aggro.
While I don't dislike reactive cards in the sideboard of every red deck, burn is not an archetype that can play from behind. Especially when sideboarding, you must be mindful of making switches that still allow you to aggressively go after your opponent's life total. As discussed, the worst scenario you can find yourself in is needing to trade cards 1-for-1, a position the deck can almost never win from.
Mono-Black Control (even)
The deck is already set up for this matchup, so the only really bad card is Shock, which does not kill any anything (there is no shortage of answers to Pack Rat). Chained to the Rocks is an ideal card because it answers their threats so efficiently. Satyr Firedancer can be good, forcing them to answer it before they tap out to play any creature—even a Desecration Demon is at risk to two burn spells. The matchup is mostly about resource management for both players, so ensuring that you sequence plays to have key cards available at the right time is critical (for example, Skullcrack when your opponent hits 5 mana).
Mono-Blue Devotion (good)
This is the matchup where Satyr Firedancer is strongest. Mono-Blue can only bounce or turn it into a 3/3, both of which are usually good for you. Previously Frostburn Weird, Tidebinder Mage, and Nightveil Specter were all problems, but now an active Firedancer embarrasses them. In turn there is now less pressure to use Chained to the Rocks early, meaning Master of Waves is also less of a problem. While it is somewhat counter-intuitive to take out burn and then bring in a Firedancer, the matchup is usually fought at your pace allowing time to set up. Finally, Spark Trooper is an enormous beating when it connects, often buying you enough time to finish them off.
UW Control (even)
I have been told repeatedly that this matchup is bad, but that has not been my experience. I think a lot of the problems that burn mages are having come from trying to win too quickly. In reality, you need to accept that they have counterspells and Sphinx's Revelation—a more complete strategic approach understands and takes these cards into account. Be aware that sometimes you need to bluff, and sometimes you need to ration your spells to present the threat of 6 to 8 points of burn on an endstep, just to prevent them from Revelating or tapping out. So long as you can maintain some consistent pressure the matchup is very winnable.
GR Monsters (unfavorable)
This matchup was very poor until Spark Trooper was suggested and even now, it is still unfavourable. The problem is that typically burn spends a card to deal 3 damage, while Monsters spends a card to put a creature into play that deals more than 3 damage every turn. Thankfully, Chained to the Rocks is a nice tempo play and Monsters isn't the most threat-dense deck. High impact life gain post-board also helps a lot. Their draws that are heavier on ramp creatures or planeswalkers are more beatable and with tight play, while you are not favored, the matchup is winnable. Or you can live the dream and give your Spark Trooper double strike with Boros Charm.
The last thing worth mentioning is that if you want to adapt this deck for online play, I would include some anti-Mono-Black cards in the sideboard. While the matchup is currently even, given the skewed nature of the online metagame, it makes sense to improve the matchup further.
Hopefully the next time you hear from me, I will have some good news from the Grand Prix to report. I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Collin Schwartz, Keith Ambrose, Matt Lazenby, and Josh Silvestri for all of the assistance with testing, card ideas, and general feedback. It was both fun and rewarding to work with a team of sorts to prepare for a major event.