One of the tried and true strategies in all of Magic has been the Burn deck—red mages have relied on the archetypes immortalized by Paul Sligh and The King of Beatdown, David Price, for decades now.
The early red decks weren’t as powerful as today’s, but followed a similar formula. Cheap creatures were often the most important “burn” spells in the deck, as you didn’t care if they died once they were able to get a couple hits in. This repeatable source of damage was critical so that your targeted burn wasn’t taxed so much.
Today, that remains true. Without powerful, early, aggressive creatures, a burn deck is really going to struggle. If you need to make sure that every single spell in your deck averages out to 3 damage, that means you have to both draw and resolve 7 spells to have any hope of winning. Each of these spells will have to target your opponent, or you need to draw an additional spell for each burn spell that takes down a creature. This is far too much of a “combo deck” element, and is much less consistent than relying on creatures.
Goblin Guide might eat a removal spell, but that’s because everybody knows they simply have to have an answer for it. Sure, there are removal spells like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile in the format, but they also have to draw them. Guide has haste, so it’s not necessarily a dead draw late in the game. If your opponents can’t attack you for fear of a haste creature, you’re actually just resolving Time Walk since you’ll have even more draw steps to find what you need.
Goblin Guide is card disadvantage in that it will help your opponent find additional lands, but you’re okay with that in a burn deck. The principal strategy is so aggressive that they should rarely have the time to play all of the lands they draw anyway. There are also many removal spells that can kill small creatures, but they need to not only have them already in their hand, but leave the mana open to cast them. It’s a lot to ask, and a turn-1 Goblin Guide can typically sneak in for 4 damage. Any more than that, and it’s tough to ever lose.
Sequencing is very important in a burn deck—even a single missed point of damage can be the difference between winning and losing a game. Burn is not the type of deck that wins in a landslide with 10 extra damage, so you need to get this right.
Wild Nacatl is the easy one. You will know based on your hand how large it will be, or what your odds are of being able to make it a 3/3 on the following turn (if you don’t have a Sacred Foundry in hand but know you have 3 in your deck, plus 11 fetchlands, you’ve got a better than 25% chance of hitting). If your Nacatl will definitely be a 3/3 on turn 2, then it tends to be an easy choice of what to play on turn 1 if you hold a Goblin Guide as well. The Guide would be able to deal 2 on both turns 1 and 2 for 4 total damage, while turn-1 Nacatl into turn-2 Guide will be 0 turn 1, but 5 on turn 2. You’re typically going to decide to go that direction, but additional haste creatures in hand, or a matchup where they’re likely to brickwall your turn-1 Nacatl and you think the 2 damage is going to matter, can change that slightly.
Monastery Swiftspear completely changed the game for red decks in all formats. Swiftspear is not your turn-1 play over Nacatl or Guide, but it will do more work as the game progresses. Swiftspears scales better than any other creature, as each additional copy you draw makes previous copies even more powerful. With 2 Swiftspears, each Bolt effect represents 5 damage, and that’s just an incredible rate.
Monastery Swiftspear is a fantastic creature in matchups where they have blockers. It will trigger off suspend cards, which can be a nice “free mana” bonus, but they also just never know how large it can become. Blocking is a nightmare against prowess creatures. They’re typically going to need to block just because of how much risk there is in taking all of the damage, which leads to you getting to both eat their creatures and start burning their face. Each burn spell suddenly feels like a Searing Blaze.
Eidolon of the Great Revel doesn’t have the keyword “haste,” but it really does have haste. There are entire archetypes that can’t win with this card in play. If they have the answer for this, in a similar vein to something like a Goblin Guide, you’re still almost always going to get your value. If they don’t have the answer for this, they’re going to be locked out of casting spells in short order. Curving a Goblin Guide or Nacatl into an Eidolon on the play is a nearly unbeatable start against many decks in the format. If they weren’t able to play a turn-1 answer, you’re looking at massive damage every turn, as well as taking big hits just for dealing with the threats on the table! The burn in hand should be able to easily end the game from there.
Grim Lavamancer isn’t the most efficient. It doesn’t have haste or pseudo-haste. It doesn’t even hit very hard. It is, however, a repeatable source of damage and a threat that typically needs to be dealt with in a hurry. You have many spells,fetchlands, and creatures that will end up in your graveyard. If those creatures aren’t dying, you’re not losing anyway. The fuel will be there, and Grim Lavamancer does most of its work in mowing down opposing creatures to clear the way. This is one of your best cards against decks like Infect or Affinity as it can kill anything they have. Vault Skirge and Blighted Agent can be problematic, and this is one of your best answers.
Lightning Bolt may have been the first burn spell ever printed, but it has also remained the best and most efficient in the game. A single mana for 3 damage to any target at instant speed is just an unbeatable rate. This is the reason that players will splash red in their B/G decks. Lightning Bolt is supremely powerful, and while there are many somewhat similar effects in a burn deck, this is the best and will never be cut or shaved in any way.
Rift Bolt, conversely, is the weakest burn spell in the deck, but it operates in a very different way. You can stockpile spells for a single turn of prowess triggers off of a Swiftspear. Rift Bolt already costs the same amount as Lightning Bolt to get it into suspend, and from there you can only cast it during your next upkeep. Having to wait a single turn isn’t very long, but when compared to an instant-speed spell that requires no suspend, it’s a staggering difference. Hard casting Rift Bolt for 3 mana is not your first preference, but it comes up plenty.
There are metagames in which Searing Blaze is completely unplayable. You need to hit your land drop—or have a fetchland sitting in play that you haven’t cracked, which is actually a line you should be aware of when you have no more lands in hand and no need for the extra mana immediately. Having a land in play to trigger landfall is much more valuable than thinning your deck of a single land. This can vary slightly in matchups where you can’t afford to pay 2 life to have your land come into play untapped, you need another color, and you don’t already have 2 other lands in play. The majority of the time, however, Searing Blaze will be your MVP. Much of Modern revolves around creatures and the ability to kill something while not moving away from your “burn opponent’s face” plan is perfect. Clearing the way of a blocker plus 3 damage is like getting 2 Lightning Bolts in a single card!
Atarka’s Command is so powerful that it pushes burn decks further in the direction of playing creatures and green mana. Luckily, this also makes Modern’s most efficient creature in Wild Nacatl an all-star in your deck. Atarka’s Command will commonly represent 5 or more damage. Have just a Swiftspear? Atarka’s Command will add 5 damage. Have any 2 random creatures coming through? Atarka’s Command will add 5 damage. An opponent casts Kitchen Finks? Respond to the life gain trigger and Atarka’s Command will again be worth 5 damage. Saving this for a big combat or to stop a trigger from a Finks, Lightning Helix, or other effect to get maximum value is usually the way to go, assuming you can afford to not worry about holding a 2-mana spell.
Boros Charm is the one spell in the deck that will always deal more than 3, so that alone is worth the slot. 4 damage at instant speed definitely changes the clock. The name of the game in Burn is to make sure each of your spells is getting through for 3, but a couple of 4s will change the math completely. Opponents typically do all they can to stay above 3 life against a Burn opponent, but Boros Charm will still finish the job.
Keep in mind that there are multiple other modes that many people tend to forget about. You can give all of your permanents indestructible which can help in a big combat, in response to a removal spell, or even more importantly in response to a sweeper. Sometimes saving an Eidolon is so valuable that that alone is enough when an opponent simply can’t beat it. The double strike mode is rare in this deck as the creatures are all relatively small. Giving a Nacatl double strike typically represents 3 additional damage, which is less than the 4 you could have already had. This can still be used in conjunction with the pump of Atarka’s Command or to win a combat against another creature. The only real use for the double strike is with Swiftspear, and I see people neglect that regularly. Especially on turns where Rift Bolt comes off of suspend, you only needed 2 other spells for the Boros Charm to get a Swiftspear up to 4. With a single Atarka’s Command, you’re there, so if you’ve cast a couple spells in a turn, be aware that this can kill people from huge life totals. Rift Bolt off suspend for 3, Atarka’s Command for 3 more, and Boros Charm double striking a Swiftspear that’s now 5/6 is 16 damage!
Lava Spike is a 4-of in these decks, which just goes to show how overpowered Lightning Bolt is. Spike is a sorcery that can’t even target creatures, and yet its efficiency is still worth it. Rift Bolt will most commonly be a Lava Spike that you need to wait a turn to come off of suspend, so Lava Spike is slightly better. Being able to spend a single mana for 3 damage gives you a reasonable topdeck late game and a good spell to chain together prowess triggers.
Here’s the list that Brandon Burton used to take down Grand Prix Indianapolis. This is an extremely streamlined version of the deck that I would absolutely recommend going forward:
Brandon Burton, 1st place at GP Indianapolis
This is a proactive deck, much like Affinity. You can’t make many changes to your strategy because you’re fast and consistent. This means that if people want to do enough to beat you, they will beat you. If you get paired against someone who came to the tournament deciding that they weren’t going to lose to Burn, then they should be able to defeat you consistently. Cards like Kor Firewalker, Timely Reinforcements, and Leyline of Sanctity can turn off massive chunks of your deck, negate multiple cards, and make the game extremely difficult to win.
That’s also not a very realistic scenario. Maybe there’s a person at every GP who does exactly this, but their chances of getting out of any other round vs. a deck that isn’t Burn are too greatly diminished. Decks like Burn represent such a small overall percentage of any Modern metagame that this isn’t a winning approach.
On the other side of the coin, there is no deck that punishes an opponent for bad draws more than Burn. Not only does almost every deck take tons of self-inflicted damage, between fetchlands, Ravnica lands, Thoughtseize, and Gitaxian Probe, Burn will always capitalize on stumbles. While every Lightning Bolt drawn is better than every Rift Bolt drawn, they’re still going to end up dealing the 3 damage for a single mana. Burn will win quickly and consistently. There are draws capable of winning turn 3 unimpeded, but there are very few draws that won’t win by turn 5 against a stumble. The “free win” potential of Burn is a feature every Magic player loves to have.
When you aren’t getting free wins, you have game against basically every deck in the format. There are going to be many players in the room who will audibly groan when an opponent plays a turn-1 Mountain. A turn-1 Goblin Guide is even worse, and many decks struggle to win game 1. Sideboarded games do get better for almost everyone in the room, but it’s not that easy to draw sideboard cards. You also need to draw the mana to cast them, and on time, or Burn will punish the misstep. If you lose game 1, you’ll have to be on the draw in 1 of the next 2 games, and it can still be extremely hard to steal them both.
As for Burn’s sideboard, you typically don’t want to do much. The cards you typically trim are Searing Blaze in matchups where they don’t have creatures, orWild Nacatls in midrange matchups where they have tons of removal. In this case, you can actually strand the removal in their hand and just win by going over the top with burn spells. When they tap mana to actually start doing something is when you can deploy your haste creatures to make sure every spell in your deck is getting in for damage.
Kor Firewalker is your ace in the hole for the mirror. It’s one of the most challenging cards to beat, even from decks that aren’t also gaining life with their own spells. An early Firewalker is nearly unbeatable in the mirror if only one player has it and the other doesn’t have Path to Exile. It’s also a useful tool against the other Zoo Blitz decks in the format to block cards like Goblin Guide and gain a handful of life.
Path to Exile will kill opposing Kor Firewalkers, along with Tarmogoyfs, Wurmcoil Engines, Kalitas, Master of Waves, or Kitchen Finks. Removal is great, especially for a single mana, but exiling problematic permanents is key in Modern. The fact that Kor Firewalker and Master of Waves both have protection from red makes Path a necessity.
Lightning Helix is a big advantage against other red decks, but it’s also just another burn spell that’s fairly efficient. In matchups where you need to board out a card like Searing Blaze, it’s nice to have an extra option
Destructive Revelry is pretty narrow and it should be clear when it’s great. You should never bring them in without a reason, so keep that in mind. If you suspect they may have Leyline, you should likely not bring this in unless they have additional targets. If you’re freerolling their additional hits, go ahead, but there is nothing worse in a Burn deck than drawing a dead card. This card gives you a huge advantage against Affinity as you can already burn their relevant creatures, but are at risk of losing to a Cranial Plating (namely on an Etched Champion). This can kill the equipment and any other creature.
Skullcrack gives you another weapon against life gain, as well as an additional burn spell in the matchups you’re boarding out Searing Blaze. It can also be useful against a deck like Jeskai that may have life gain in Lightning Helix or Timely Reinforcements, and tons of removal that makes Wild Nacatl less powerful.
Deflecting Palm can completely change the game, but it’s not always easy to set up. Against Bogles, Cranial Plating, or Death’s Shadow, this can be a swing of 20 damage. It can also do work against Infect, especially if they have cards like Wild Defiance to stop your burn spells from killing all of their creatures.
I know that Burn is a polarizing deck. People tend to absolutely love it or totally hate it. That said, it’s a force in Modern and is still out there winning GPs. Be prepared to know how it works, how to best build it, and hopefully how to best beat it as well!
Naya Burn has been the consensus best Burn deck for a while now, but do you think that trend will continue? Does a UR Burn deck have some potential thanks to card drawing and the power of Bedlam Reveler, or does Naya just offer that consistency and power you love? Sound off in the comments!