Burn is usually maligned in the Pro community (myself included) for the fact that it’s very simple. You have few choices and even less control over what is happening—either you draw a critical mass of burn spells or you do not. If you draw one or two lands too many, then you aren’t going to win and there is nothing you can do about it.
Then came Khans of Tarkir, and with it Monastery Swiftspear, which gave Burn another hasty creature that made its goldfish significantly faster. The deck started having strong GP results, and the Pro community could no longer ignore it. Burn ended up being the second-most-played deck at Pro Tour Fate Reforged last week, and it had a very good win percentage, including two people in the Top t8. There is no doubt in my mind that Burn is here to stay and, if you want to play Modern, you need to know how it operates.
Burn’s game plan is extremely simple: you burn them. There really isn’t much more to it, you just cast burn spells until they are dead. There is no secondary plan, no late-game plan, nothing else. You do have some creatures, but they are just burn spells in disguise and if you get 4 damage out of them you should already be pretty happy.
With Burn, none of your cards do anything until you get a critical mass of them, at which point you win the game. It’s very similar to Storm in that just playing Dark Ritual doesn’t get you anywhere, but play 10 of them and you win the game with Tendrils. The difference is that in Burn every card plays the exact same role, and you can start casting your “rituals” as early as turn one.
48 people played Burn at the PT, and I was one of them. Many of my friends were surprised by the fact that I played Burn. I was too—I don’t like the deck in the slightest. But I thought the deck was good, and I thought people would underprepare for it. In the end, I had to decide whether I thought the deck was enough better than other decks that I would give away any edge that I theoretically have because I am a good player. I decided that it was.
Our list, in retrospect, wasn’t optimal for the event. Bump in the Night was good in matchups where you had to race combo, but it was very bad for the mirror, where it usually cost you at least 2 life. The rest of the list I did like. I see people playing fewer than four Searing Blazes, but I think that’s wrong since they are the best card in your deck in over half your matchups.
We also had no dedicated sideboard cards for the mirror; Helix was fine and Geist on the play was OK, but we lacked the power of something like Kor Firewalker. One of my burn opponents won a game by going t2 Kor Firewalker, t3 Kor Firewalker. He ended the game at 27. Another of my opponents had zero sideboard cards whatsoever for the mirror, but he killed me turn three on the play after sideboard when I fetched two Mountains, so it didn’t matter much.
If I were to play Burn again, I’d focus a little more on the mirror match. This is the list I’d use:
There’s very little you can do to customize a burn deck, since it’s a collection of the best burn spells in the format. Cards you could potentially add are:
- More Grim Lavamancers if you expect a lot of Infect (and Deflecting Palm in your sideboard).
- The 4th Eidolon, Bump in the Nights, and Blood Crypt if you expect a format that will let you take more damage.
- Lightning Helix if you expect a lot of Burn (though there is a cost to playing too many 2-casting-cost spells, and at this point you’d have to cut Skullcrack or Searing Blaze, which I don’t recommend).
- 1 Flames of the Blood Hand maindeck if you expect a lot of life gain. I do think the card is bad and I haven’t seen a metagame that justifies it.
The sideboard is very much up in the air. Geist is good versus UWR, good on the play versus some matchups like the Burn mirror, and good against random things like the Blue Moon deck I played against. It’s also a sort of Leyline insurance. If you are playing Geist, I think you can play Steam Vents in the main deck now that you don’t have Blood Crypt.
Mutagenic Growth was also good for me in our testing against any deck with red—it looks like a low impact card, but being able to pump Goblin Guide when they Bolt it on turn 1 or Eidolon against a Storm deck is very powerful. Molten Rain is also a possibility if you expect Tron, Scapeshift, and Amulet. You likely need something for the mirror, and whether that is Kor Firewalker, Leyline of Sanctity, Pyrite Spellbomb, or a combination of those I’m not sure. If you expect a lot of Infect, then Deflecting Palm is probably the best option.
I’m not going to do a strict sideboard guide because I don’t know what my sideboard would be, but sideboarding with Burn is not very hard because some cards are much better than others (i.e. you’ll never take out Lightning Bolt before Shard Volley) and a lot of the cards are obviously good or bad against specific things. This is my usual process when sideboarding:
- If I am on the draw and my opponent is remotely aggressive, I take out Eidolon. This includes Burn mirrors, Zoo, Affinity, and even Junk. On the play the card is much better.
- If they have no life gain I take out Skullcrack.
- If they have very few small creatures, I take out Searing Blaze.
- If I still need cards to take out, I’ll start with the bad burn spells and move my way up. The worst one is Shard Volley, the second worst is Bump in the Night (though this deck list does not play them. If you do have them and do bring Geist in at any point, take Bumps out—you can’t afford to have to fetch for three additional colors). After that it’s Rift Bolt, but I’ve never gotten that far.
One caveat with sideboarding is that I am strongly against sideboarding an answer for their answer, especially if you haven’t seen anything yet. What this means is that even if I do have Wear // Tear or Destructive Revelry in my sideboard, I would not want to board it in because people might have Leyline. If I ever get to a point in which I think it’s correct to board those in, then that’s the point where you should not play Burn.
Burn is a deck that, again, needs a critical mass of resources, so it doesn’t do well with mulligans. I keep almost all hands that have two or three lands, and most hands that have one land and enough 1-mana cards. I mulligan all 4+-land hands that don’t have a creature. If you’re playing Burn, getting flooded is much worse than being short on mana, and I’d much rather have one land than five.
If you are low enough, then mulligan more to find a creature. If you are on 5 and your hand is three lands and two Lava Spikes, then I believe it’s better to mulligan to four in search of a permanent source of damage, such as Goblin Guide, because that hand can actually win if you get lucky and your guy lives.
Deck Difficulty: Easier than Average
The Burn deck is easy to play when you compare it to other decks, because it’s extremely one-dimensional and all your decisions have effectively already been made. If you are wondering whether you should cast a spell the answer is usually “yes” and if you are wondering who the target should be the answer is usually “your opponent.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, it’s just easier than other decks. There are not many opportunities to mess up with a burn deck, but small mistakes can be very punishing, such as fetching when you didn’t need to and then drawing a Searing Blaze, or such as tapping out on a turn in which you needed to keep Skullcrack up. If you ever need to deviate and aim a burn spell at a creature instead of at a player, then it will likely lose you the game if you don’t find that line. Burn needs all of its resources to win, and if you mess up, there is a decent chance it will cost you the game, because you lack the power of something like Sphinx’s Revelation to bail you out. Sequencing your burn spells can be a bit tricky in the beginning, but once you’ve played some number of games with the deck, then it becomes automatic.
Burn has one main weakness: life gain. The way the deck works, it’s super easy to deal 15-16 damage, which is why decks that take a lot of damage are generally good matchups. Against those, you only need to do 15. My round 1 opponent at the PT led with Overgrown Tomb, Thoughtseize, and it did not go well for him. If you are playing against Burn, it’s often worth slowing yourself down for a turn if it’s going to save you 4-6 life from your lands.
If you need to deal the full 20, then things are a bit harder. Affinity, for example, is a deck that doesn’t take any damage from its lands, so it’s very hard to kill them on turn three or sometimes turn four. Amulet and Twin are similar—they don’t damage themselves as much, and it slows your goldfish by one or two turns. A deck like Storm, on the other hand, needs fetches, duals, and Gitaxian Probes to execute its game plan, so it’s not uncommon to kill them (or put them on a life total low enough that they can’t do anything) on turns three and four.
If you need to deal 25+, then it’s often impossible. Cards like Rest for the Weary, Feed the Clan, and Timely Reinforcements are very, very hard to beat if they resolve, especially if the opponent hasn’t damaged themselves. Leyline of Sanctity is even harder because you need to deal all the damage with creatures and in the great majority of cases, it’s not going to happen.
The best cards to beat Burn are Kor Firewalker and Dragon’s Claw if you are also casting red spells yourself, and Leyline of Sanctity if you’re not. Next come Rest for the Weary and Feed the Clan (I think Rest is better if your mana supports it). Timely Reinforcements is the worst “burn hate,” since it’s a sorcery and costs three mana, which leaves you vulnerable to Skullcrack, but it’s also the most versatile, and you can board it in against stuff like Zoo, whereas the other ones are pretty much Burn specific. Nowadays it seems to me like Zoo is not a real deck, so I’d go for the specific hate, but that may change.
If your deck can’t cast Leyline of Sanctity, it’s likely worse than all the other cards mentioned here, but it’s likely still better than anything else. A deck like Scapeshift can easily side in Leyline if it’s worried about Burn, and it will be quite good.
When you play Burn, you want to play against decks that take damage, don’t gain life, and have a slow clock. BGx decks are usually good matchups, and so are decks like Storm, Zoo, Scapeshift, Faeries, and most random decks. Affinity and Infect are even-ish or perhaps slightly unfavorable, but whoever wins the die roll should be greatly advantaged in this matchup. UWR and the combo decks that take no damage, such as Amulet and Twin, are your bad matchups. It’s important to note that, no matter how good of a matchup you have, anyone can beat you with sideboard cards. It is my opinion that, right now, people will have those cards, which makes Burn a poor choice at this moment, but you should definitely keep it in mind for future events.
Tips and Tricks
- Prioritize your sorcery-speed burn, starting with Rift Bolt. The last cards in your hand should be Lightning Bolt, Shard Volley, and Skullcrack.
- Don’t crack fetchlands if you don’t have to. Sometimes you’ll draw Searing Blaze and you’ll need the instant-speed landfall.
- If your opponent is guaranteed to kill your Goblin Guide, don’t attack with it. If you attack with Guide on turn 1 and reveal Lightning Bolt, for example, and then their turn is untapped Steam Vents go, then you gain nothing by attacking. They will Bolt the Goblin anyway, don’t give them a trigger. If they have a fetchland, however, it’s usually fine to attack because you force them to either grab Mountain or take 2 more damage from a dual.
- Don’t forget that Boros Charm has other modes. Both indestructible and double strike come up, particularly with Swiftspear. Also be aware that you can give all your permanents indestructible. Shahar won a game at the GP because he countered a Fulminator Mage with Boros Charm, for example.
- Don’t hold burn spells in hand if you’re playing against a black deck. Sometimes it’s tempting to keep Lava Spike because you might draw Swiftspear, but then they play Inquisition and you can’t get rid of it.
- You can Searing Blaze your own creatures if you need to trigger prowess or to stop Lightning Helix from gaining life.
- Searing Blaze targets both player and creature, which means there’s no way to stop the damage once the spell is cast. It’s possible to quadruple Searing Blaze a 1/1 to deal 12 damage to them.
Well, that’s about it! If you have any more questions, feel free to ask on the forums. See you soon,