Red has a problem at common. The color of impulsivity, destruction, and setting things on fire tends to have a narrow band of reasonable effects for spells in the most abundant booster slot. For much of Magic’s history this meant red got multiple burn spells every set. Decks in both Legacy and Modern are based around this surplus and Pauper is no different. After all, Lightning Bolt has been printed at common.
Pauper Burn is a straightforward take on the archetype but is far from simple to play. It rewards proper sequencing and playing around your opponent more than many other deck in the format. Burn also has fewer options out of the sideboard, not because it lacks the tools but because it has such a narrow focus. Any card that does not damage the opponent is a liability, and while something like Relic of Progenitus can be a game-breaker it comes with a high opportunity cost—around 3 damage.
As a result, Pauper Burn was a cut below the other top decks for a number of years. Unlike other formats, there is no Goblin Guide or Price of Progress. Most cards were worth exactly as much damage as was printed on the card, with Needle Drop and Curse of the Pierced Heart being two notable exceptions. The printing of the gainlands in Khans of Tarkir increased the difficulty as well. After Swiftwater Cliffs and its friends hit the scene, two-color decks effectively started at 22 or 23 life. At the time, Burn was great at dealing 20 or 21 damage but struggled to do much more.
In order to fully understand how impactful the gainlands were, we need only look at the former staple in Keldon Marauders. Unchecked, it dealt 5 damage for 2 mana—a bargain in Pauper. Even if the Planar Chaos card ended up being blocked it would still get in for a Shock’s worth of damage. Far from ideal, but hardly terrible. Once players were able to open the game on two copies of Wind-Scarred Crag, Keldon Marauders transformed from the world’s best Lava Axe into the world’s worst Lightning Strike—one that could be blocked. Shortly after the gainlands came Pulse of Murasa and Burn faced another obstacle. It’s hard to keep the fire down and due to the needs of Limited it was only a matter of time before Burn was going to get new toys.
There were two cards, printed about a year apart, that let red mages everywhere scoff at the meager life gain. First came Thermo-Alchemist in Eldritch Moon. Remember what I said before about spells doing exactly what the card said? Thermo-Alchemist changed all that. Now every spell came with an additional point of damage on top of a guaranteed ping every turn. When Needle Drop does 2 damage on its own, things are going great. After Eldritch Moon, Burn decks were routinely dealing around 4 damage per spell. While the deck got better, it was still a notch below. Then Hour of Devastation brought Firebrand Archer to the party and everything changed.
The introduction of Thermo-Alchemist turned Burn from a 21-damage deck into one that could deal 25. Archer turned that up to 11, and by 11 I clearly mean close to 30. With these two creatures Burn could not only overcome the buffer provided by gainlands but could easily win through a single copy of Pulse of Murasa or Feed the Clan (a common sideboard card). The duo of Archer and Alchemist even managed to put a hurt on decks that could recur Lone Missionary with Kor Skyfisher.
The addition of Thermo-Alchemist and Firebrand Archer placed an increased emphasis on proper sequencing. In the past, the delta between a strong Pauper Burn pilot and a weaker one was not so wide—it is hard to mess up Lightning Bolt. Usually the difference was when the Burn player needed to shift into a control role to maintain an empty board, but the top of the deck would often play savior. Now every extra point counts. As such, it is often correct to hold on to spells until one of these creatures is active so as to eke out extra damage. Waiting a turn can mean an extra Lava Spike’s worth of damage, which in turn can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Let’s talk about the cards. First up is the mana base. The addition of Archer and Alchemist means that you want to cast multiple spells on some turns. As such you do want three to four lands at times and the sixteen Mountains provides that stability. You might want to play Forgotten Cave early to optimize your mana, or late for cycling or to turn on Searing Blaze.
I’ve spent a good amount of time talking about the dastardly duo of creatures so I’ll focus on some of the other choices. Curse of the Pierced Heart is a reliable source of damage that is hard to disrupt. While it may take a few turns to pay off—getting less than 3 damage out of the Curse is pretty bad—it can help keep pressure on. More importantly it is a high impact 2-drop that lets you conserve spells for Alchemist and Archer.
Rift Bolt might be the best turn-1 play in the deck. 3 damage on turn 2 and leaving mana open for more threats or burn is a great way to step on the gas pedal. Setting up a Rift Bolt with an Alchemist or Archer on the board is also a way to start a 10-damage turn.
The only other spell in the deck that isn’t straightforward is Needle Drop. 1 damage on its own is far from great and the prerequisite is relevant. But with an Alchemist on the table the Lorwyn cantrip can often represent 5 damage—2 from itself with Alchemist and then the fresh Burn spell off the top. It also works well with Curse of the Pierced Heart.
The rest of the deck reads like an all-star list of red cards. Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Lava Spike, Fireblast, Searing Blaze—that’s quite the starting five. Shard Volley does some mop up duty and Magma Jet is in there for some sculpting. Flame Rift is an option but not necessary—in a format as aggressive as Pauper the 4 damage can often backfire. Thunderous Wrath was downshifted in Modern Masters 2017 and while 5 damage qualifies as a bargain for 1 mana, the cost to set it up is too high. Being able to Needle Drop with your last mana on your opponent’s turn to draw more fire goes a long way to untapping into the win and the risk of stranding Thunderous Wrath in hand is very real.
Burn is an excellent option for someone just getting into Pauper. It has plenty of cards that have utility in other formats and plays similarly to its Legacy and Modern counterparts. While some of the cards may be different the goal is one and the same: burn burn burn.