The upcoming Pro Tour 25th Anniversary will feature Standard, Modern, and Legacy. While Standard gets a lot of time in the spotlight as a matter of course, you might not be quite up to speed on Magic’s Eternal formats. While there are specialists much more qualified than me to do this for Legacy, Modern is my favorite Constructed format and the one I spend the most time playing. In the lead up to the PT, I’ll be breaking down the decks that are likely to see play, explaining the game plan, strengths, and weaknesses of the format’s major archetypes. This week, I’m looking at Burn, and you can find previous deck breakdowns here.
What Burn Does
Billions of years ago, as the Earth’s molten surface eventually cooled during the Precambrian Eon, great mountains rose up as continents crashed together. Around this time, these mountains were first printed on Magic cards and used to reduce life totals from 20 to 0 as swiftly as possible. Burn decks employ a strategy older than time itself, relying on an extremely linear approach that seeks to exploit card redundancy: every single card in a Burn deck does a minimum of 3 points of damage to the opponent.
Sometimes acting as the fun police, Burn decks are a way to keep the Modern format in check by punishing players who are hoping to get away with playing durdley, non-interactive Magic. You simply have to respect Goblin Guide and friends when playing Modern, or this deck will set you ablaze and give you a long time between rounds to consider your life choices. While very one-dimensional, Burn is still a deck that requires some very careful decision-making—don’t underestimate how complex decks like these can be to play.
Edilson Silva, 16th at GP Sao Paolo 2018
Burn is a highly linear strategy, which means that it has a single game plan and will very rarely deviate from its plan A (compare this with a flexible, non-linear deck like Jund or White-Blue Control, which seeks to react to an opponent’s plays). An important strength of the Burn deck is how it enacts this game plan with remarkable efficiency and consistency, supported by the fact that every card in the deck does more or less the same thing: around 3 points of damage.
Redundancy is perhaps its greatest strength. Principally, it means that a Burn player is able to ignore just about everything their opponent is seeking to do (except dedicated life gain), as most hands are going to look the same and play out in a broadly similar fashion.
There’s another reason Burn pilots don’t care about anything much their opponents do—as you would expect, Burn is a blazing fast deck and its pilots know that they’re probably the faster deck in nearly all matchups. Of course, there is the option to interact with cards like Lightning Bolt and Searing Blaze, but generally speaking, a Burn deck puts its opponent to the question and leaves it up to them to find their way out.
A final strength offered to Burn decks by the redundancies in their makeup is the fact that mulligans are very infrequent. If every nonland card is close to functionally identical, it doesn’t matter which ones they actually are. As long as you’ve got four or five nonland cards (or potentially even six), you can keep pretty much every time.
Conversely, when it comes to actually needing to mulligan, Burn players are heavily punished when going down to six or fewer. The reason for this is very straightforward, and again comes back to this idea of redundancy. If each nonland card in the deck does 3 damage (an oversimplification, but useful to demonstrate this point), then at worst you need seven effectively-deployed nonland cards to bring an opponent down from 20.
In reality, of course, this number is probably a little lower due to fetchlands and shocklands, but the fact remains—Burn players need a critical mass of creatures and spells to get across the line, and every mulligan hurts their chances of reaching that critical mass. There is generally no card selection or card draw in this archetype, so a good starting hand is critical.
The lack of card selection results in another issue—flooding out with a Burn deck is horrific, as there isn’t a single way to effectively mitigate it. In Standard we’ve seen Hazoret the Fervent and Earthshaker Khenra as ways for the red aggro deck to use extra lands, but in Modern, you have no such luck. Given that your curve stops at 2, even a third land is sometimes a liability. Drawing lands four and five instead of action can spell game over.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the way that decks will seek to counter your strategy. It’s very simple—life gain of any kind, whether incidental or dedicated, is disastrous for a Burn player. Think of it this way—every 3 points of life gained is effectively one nonland card neutralized! This means that cards such as Timely Reinforcements and Kor Firewalker are an absolute beating, but it doesn’t get much better than Collective Brutality.
How to Beat Burn
This section could be somewhat adequately covered in two words: “gain life.” It really is that simple. At the end of the day, if you’re able to buffer your life total sufficiently, the Burn player will run out of fuel and be forced to rely on exceedingly fortuitous topdecks in order to have a sniff of a chance.
What are the best life gain cards? There was a time where sideboards were full of cards like Rest for the Weary or Feed the Clan, but in recent times there has been a trend away from dedicated to incidental life gain. Thragtusk or Obstinate Baloth in green, Blessed Alliance in white, and perhaps the best of them all: Collective Brutality in black. Remember, a 3-for-3 is absolutely stellar against Burn, as once they lose the critical mass of spells they need to close, you’ll have time to stabilize and turn the game around.
Outside of life gain, cheap, painless interaction is the best way to contest Burn. Fatal Push, Path to Exile, Inquisition of Kozilek—all of these cards get in early to disrupt the Burn player’s progress, and that’s just about the best plan you can hope to enact.
It will be very interesting to see the role Burn plays at the upcoming Pro Tour. This deck has a surprising level of depth when it comes to crunching numbers and navigating tight situations, but is also extremely linear and doesn’t offer the flexibility many world-class pros prefer. Nonetheless, as a quick, aggressive deck that ruthlessly punishes both any kind of stumble or greed, Burn could be a force to be reckoned with in Minneapolis!