This article could also have been titled “Why Burn is beating you, and why you should be ashamed of yourselves that this is the case.”
There’s always been a particular type of player that gets more satisfaction out of throwing fire at their opponent’s dome than any other type of thing they could be doing. We’re generally amused by this, as we laugh it off and continue along our merry way to the top of the standings, allowing them to enjoy themselves at the 100+ table numbers. Mostly, this is because Burn is a bad deck. Despite the love and affection these players have for “Lava Spike you, go,” it has never been tier 1, it is not currently tier 1, and will never be tier 1. Well, maybe not never. That seems like the kind of quote I’d get called out on five years from now when they’ve printed 20 more overpowered burn spells.
So wait – if Burn has won the last two SCG Legacy Opens, doesn’t that mean the deck is tier 1? How can it be winning all these events without being considered one of, if not the best deck?
Simple, actually. Metagame decks are never the best deck. Ever. By definition.
And really, that’s all Burn is. It’s a bad aggro deck. It’s a slow combo deck. It is in no way a control deck. A sufficiently prepared opponent will have absolutely no difficulty dismantling a Burn player, and the entire deck folds to a subset of cards that wax and wane in playability.
Right now, the playability of these cards is HIGH, and the actually representation of these cards is very, very low – making it the perfect metagame for Burn to be viable. Of course, that was the past two weeks. Next week may be different.
See, that stigma I mentioned before, about the deck being bad and only one particular player-type loving it combines to create an irrational sense of dread and loathing for the Burn player. No one likes losing to burn. No one enjoys seeing an opponent lead with Goblin Guide, whiffing on the land, playing out their strategy, feeling like they’ve stabilized and then losing to Price of Progress for 6, Fireblast, Fireblast. When this happens, and happens again, the metagame will respond – and all those cards that are highly effective but underplayed will start to see play again, and Burn will return back to the hole where it came from.
The metagame as I outlined it last week, contains the upper tier as follows:
RUG Delver – Completely folds to burn. It is not fast enough, is much too durdly, and has no appreciable way to interact with a Lightning Bolt. Runs all Non-Basic lands (or nearly all), and all the Stifles in the world won’t save you from a Fireblast.
UW Stoneforge – While many versions have the capability of being a threat to burn, your creatures tend to either be slow or very vulnerable. You can try to stick a Geist + Jitte, but turn 4 is when they’re killing you, not when you want to be attacking them to gain 4. Your Stoneforge Mystic will not survive, ever. Your Batterskull will cost 5. You also play infinite non-basics, and despite the fact that you have Swords to Plowshares, you will not gain more than 2 life from it, ever.
GW Maverick – While some lists may play Kitchen Finks, most do not. If a Burn player concentrates on going to the dome, rather than trying to control the creatures, you have no appreciable interactions with them whatsoever, and cannot hope to race. You are also vulnerable to Price of Progress.
Storm – You can race, but if you’re on the Ad Nauseam plan, you’d better play tight. If your draw is awkward and you need to sculpt a winning hand, you’re in for a hell of a battle. If you don’t win before they resolve a Pyrostatic Pillar, well, good game.
Reanimator – in theory, you have the best game against them due to Iona, Shield of Emeria. While that’s certainly true in game one, your post-board game gets a little more awkward when they side in the full set of Faerie Macabre – the most difficult hate card to play around. Should they blindside you with Faerie, you’re done – and they can race you if you try to slowroll to play around it. Did I mention the text of Reanimate is your worst enemy? Nothing like doing half the work for them.
Dredge – With the return to LED Dredge, you now have the capacity to race once more, but the games where you don’t, you’re in trouble. They can remove your bridges nearly at will, and can race any hands that don’t come blazing out of the gates. Realistically, of the top tier, this is the deck with the best tools to fight the deck, in my opinion.
Judging by the matchup (or lack thereof) these decks have with Burn, it’s no real surprise that the deck tore through the field over the past couple weeks. Once the cat was out of the bag, with Austin Yost taking home the trophy in DC, it was only a matter of time before the red mages came out of the woodwork to prey on the ready victims in tier 1. Of course, the results of SCG Richmond aren’t quite as telling as you’d expect, as the winner of the event was actually the only player to reach the top 32 with Burn, whereas decks like RUG Delver and UW Stoneforge managed much more robust performances, despite their failure in the single elimination rounds.
It’s easy to think of Burn as a little kid’s deck, where they jam a bunch of cards from Premium Series: Fire and Lightning into sleeves (or not) and bring it to the table. That would be underestimating our opponents, however, and that’s a critical mistake that we all agree not to make anymore, right? Good. So let’s take a look.
First, the creature base of the deck is more robust than we’ve seen in previous iterations of this deck, as well as more aggressive. While some builds have run cards like Grim Lavamancer and Tarmogoyf or Quirion Dryad, this deck skips all the slow elements and goes straight to the beats. As one drops in red, Goblin Guide and Figure of Destiny are both very good, giving you an extremely fast clock, along with something to do with your mana if you happen to flood. Goblin Guide is obviously the card you want to lead with in most situations, and Figure is a great topdeck late game.
Hellspark Elemental and Keldon Marauders are both weaker than the other pair, but shine in different situations. Hellspark allows you to have a bolt “on tap” when you need it, and can circumvent countermagic when your opponent has a wall built up. The Marauders are a very aggressive two drop that is basically a Lava Axe for two mana. While he’s not very good at punching through Tarmogoyf, he does manage to Shock them even when he can’t attack.
Most of the time, Rift Bolt will be another Lava Spike, albeit one that takes a turn to set up. Other times, it will be a way for you to circumvent things like Chalice of the Void, Counterbalance, and Spell Pierce, or a way to dissuade an opponent from playing a creature into the suspended removal spell. I consider it to be one of the more nuanced spells in the deck, and choosing the appropriate time and way to use it separates the little kids from the good players.
Fireblast, Price of Progress, and Flame Rift all serve a similar role in the deck – FATALITY. When you hear Shao Khan say “FINISH HIM,” and you need to close out a game as fast as you can, you’re perfectly willing to trade your own life or lands for a fast ending, and these give you reach from an extremely long distance. The ability to kill an opponent in one shot from 12 or 14 life is the real difference between a deck like this one from something like Standard Red Deck Wins – which, while also strong in specific metagames, has a much shorter wingspan.
The Burn sideboard is an interesting concession to the fact that the worst matchups for the deck are the ones that don’t play fair. The decks that choose to run cards like Batterskull and Swords to Plowshares will be brick walled by Sulfuric Vortex (now not just for Cube!). The decks trying to Dark Ritual you out will find their storm limited by a Pyrostatic Pillar. The Graveyard decks putting Iona, Shield of Emeria into play will be stunted by Faerie Macabre. And, when all else fails, there’s always Red Blasts. What interests me the most about these decks is the complete lack of respect for Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Counterbalance and the like, which it has basically no answer for, outside hitting a Counterbalance on the way down with a Red Elemental Blast. It’s actually quite genius to ignore the presence of those cards altogether, because – as I stated before – the viability of this deck relies almost entirely on the pretense that those types of cards aren’t making up a large portion of the metagame. Once you’ve established that you’re a metagame deck, planning to prey on a specific metagame that does not include those as a significant slice of the pie, conceding slots in your deck to combat that type of thing is contrary to the path you’ve set yourself on by picking up the deck in the first place! It may not be intuitive to someone looking at the deck in the abstract, where you’d say things like “what do you do about COP: Red?” but the answer to that question is elegant and simple: you don’t play Burn.
So now, we play a delicate and intricate game of cat and mouse with the burn players, and ask ourselves the following questions:
1) How long should we expect players to actually play burn, in a field that’s increasingly more prepared for it?
2) How much preparation for the deck is sufficient, given a reasonable chance of playing against the deck in a six-plus round event?
3) What are the most effective ways to battle the deck?
To answer these questions, we need a baseline understanding of not only the way metagames function, but of the psychological structure of a Legacy player, as well.
First, there will always be burn kids. No matter how good or bad the deck is in a given metagame, there will always be a few people who play it. We’ve mentioned this already. It’s safe to say that while we can factor this into account in situations like this one, but I’d consider this to be more noise than signal, if we’re being totally honest. What we’re concerned about isn’t the burn guy. We’re concerned about the good player who made a conscious decision to play Burn because it’s good in the metagame.
Second, some people are slow to adapt. Because Legacy is a format where changing from one deck to another is an expensive prospect, it’s not uncommon for players to be limited by what they have access to, rather than playing their ideal 75. A deck like Burn is a great “back pocket” deck, to be either loaned or used when other options fall through. It doesn’t run Force of Will, Wasteland, Tarmogoyf, or Dual lands, so it’s an inexpensive choice for a budget-minded player. This can artificially inflate the presence of a deck in an under-developed metagame.
With those in mind, let’s discuss our questions.
Q) How long can we expect to see the deck en-force?
A) For at least another two weeks, especially since the deck won back-to-back events. I doubt it will last much into the spring, because by then players will have given it due respect, and it’s a deck that’s easily forgotten once it falls from grace. The other issue is the distinct similarities between Burn and UR Delver, which is effectively counter-burn with better control elements. Both decks use undercosted creatures to jump ahead, and try to close out with fire to the dome and Price of Progress. Because I don’t see UR going anywhere, and the answers to Burn are decent against UR, I expect the hate to be a little more steadfast than the Burn deck itself.
Q) How much do we really need to prepare?
A) I would consider it slightly less important than Dredge in the long term, and slightly more important in the short term. Basically, that means you pick one of the two to load up on, and go from there. I’d try to err on the side of generic cards that have broader applications for now, since it’s difficult to justify running a playset of COP: Red in your sideboard at the expense of other matchups. Three to five slots in a normal board is probably fine.
Q) What cards are most effective?
A) As Burn is a deck solely focused on reducing your life total to 0, it stands to reason that gaining life is good against them. However, this is not always the most effective tool, since they’re often faster than lifegain, and Sulfuric Vortex exists. What seems to be more effective is damage prevention, or redirection, or a combination of all of the above. Take a look at Jeff Mcaleer’s build of Tezzeret Control, that took 6th at SCG Richmond:
Aside from being the only deck in the top 8 of either day running Grafdigger’s Cage (running it in the maindeck, which someone suggested as the right place for it), and also ignoring my own sordid love affair with Enlightened Tutor, we can see that Jeff’s deck seems legitimately prepared for the Burn matchup. Unfortunately, he was not paired with the deck in the single elimination rounds – being dispatched by Anthony Wilson’s Affinity build, which appears to be a miserable matchup – but the two did face off in the Swiss, and Jeff handed the eventual champ his only loss on the day.
The combination of lifegain in the maindeck, along with a plethora of useful ways to answer the threat of burn from the board put Jeff over the top. While he utilized some interesting selections to get the job done, his deck has the ability to convert into quite the machine in the matchup.
He gets to add:
Aegis of Honor – A card I admit I haven’t considered playable in years. It takes a very specific metagame to make this card viable, because it does nothing against combo and very little against anything outside LightningBolt.dec. Since our metagame now has a trio or more of decks that are Bolting over and over, it may be one time for this to be a realistic option. The major advantage that Aegis presents is the fact that it does not prevent damage or gain life, and so it’s not stopped by cards like Sulfuric Vortex. It’s a card the opponent has to deal with, or be relegated to attacking for the win through your wall of Thopters, Humility, and Ensnaring Bridge.
Sun Droplet – Another odd selection, it functionally stores your life total as counters on the artifact, which allows you to gain back two life per “turn,” negating most of the damage if given enough time. And time is something this deck has in spades. However, given the predominance of artifacts in the format today, I think this card is still a bit risky, even against Burn. Smash to Smithereens is not so odd a choice that I’d be willing to run the risk of leaning on this, only to see it smashed and my life reduced by three more. Granted, in a deck that’s almost 50% artifacts anyway, it may be a moot point.
Counterbalance – the card that singlehandedly kept burn off the radar for the last few years, which has very much fallen off the map itself of late. While it’s too slow or non-impactful against many matchups in the format right now, there are still a few that it completely blows out.
Each of these cards are easily accessed by Enlightened Tutor, not to mention the primary win condition of the deck, which also gains life.
Beyond the cards in Jeff’s deck, other options do exist. Here’s a nice set of cards we’ve seen utilized in the recent to not-so-recent past to battle Burn:
Circle of Protection: Red
Rune of Protection: Red
Sphere of Law
Leyline of Sanctity
Pulse of the Fields
Words of Worship
Blue Elemental Blast
While this list is not exhaustive, it gives you some insight into the kind of lengths one can go to in order to defeat a deck like Burn; and why, in light of the options you have at your disposal to defeat it, it can never be more than a metagame deck.
So, for the love of all that’s good and happy in the world, can we agree to prepare for Burn for the next few weeks so the Standard players will stop making fun of us? I’m game if you are.