Burn has been a competitive Magic: the Gathering strategy since before you were born. Even before Richard Garfield invented the game, the concept of burn decks lay dormant in the hearts of man, waiting to be rediscovered through tournament Magic. The idea is simple, yet powerful: play cheap cards focused on reducing your opponent’s life total as quickly as possible. Your cards are generally not very powerful on their own, but if you cast 6 or 7 burn spells targeting your opponent's face, they generally lose. Your goal is to invalidate your enemy’s expensive cards by killing them before they are even cast.
The core of the burn deck is essentially just the card Lightning Bolt. One mana for three damage is the gold standard for burning your opponent to death. Every other card seeks to replicate or exceed the mana efficiency of Lightning Bolt. This means playing cards like Lava Spike and Rift Bolt as extra Lightning Bolt copies. Lava Spike lacks the flexibility of Lightning Bolt, but who cares? We are Bolting their face anyway. Rift Bolt is Lightning Bolt on layaway.
Alongside these efficient burn spells, the deck plays the best damage dealing Red One drops in the format. Goblin Guide hits early and often, hopefully killing the opponent before the opponent uses the extra lands they were given. Monastery Swiftspear can consistently hit for 2 damage after turn 1 and potentially grow to a 3/4 or 4/5 with ease with all of the instants and sorceries in our deck. Grim Lavamancer is a slower card but can repeatably Shock the opponent or their creatures. Lavamancer has the lowest floor, but also the highest ceiling. It doesn't get invalidated by a big creature like Goblin Guide or Swiftspear, and is your best card against small creature decks. You want your one cost creatures to deal at least four damage over the course of the game.
Eidolon of Great Revel can be very threatening to opponents who need to cast multiple cheap cards over the course of the game. It also serves as a way to lock our opponent out if they are at a low life total. Eidolon is the most difficult card in the deck to play with and takes careful management on both sides of the table.
Searing Blaze can clear out a blocker or threatening creature while still pressuring your opponent's life total. Skullcrack can shut down any life gain effects your opponent is playing, often giving you just enough time to finish them off before they gain life and get out of burn range. Boros Charm deals 4 damage in one card and for two mana, which is a great deal for us. 4 damage is a lot more than 3 and makes it hard for our opponent to plan and manage their life total. Lightning Helix can provide life gain in the mirror match or in racing situations and offers another spell that can target opposing creatures.
Burn plays around 10 fetchlands that can search for Mountains with 2 Sacred Foundries, 1 Stomping Ground, and 2-4 basic Mountains as targets. The large number of fetchlands allows you to easily splash for white cards (Boros Charm, Lightning Helix) or green sideboard cards (Destructive Revelry) at minimal cost. The fetchlands also have the upside of triggering landfall at instant speed for Searing Blaze and putting cards in the graveyard for Grim Lavamancer. Burn also plays a full set of Inspiring Vantage, which is essentially a free dual land in this deck where your fourth land drop is rarely important.
The hallmark of Burn is its consistency and redundancy. This means that most disruptive decks like Jund or Grixis control are generally weak to burn’s strategy, since burn makes powerful cards like Thoughtseize incredibly underwhelming. Burn is also favored against decks where its cards have relevant interactive text, such as against Infect where all your burn spells double as removal against their small creatures. Burn is good against decks that tend toward late-game resiliency over speed, such as Tron or Scapeshift. These decks have a difficult time interacting in the early turns of the game, where Burn mounts its offensive.
Burn also demands specific interaction from your opponent and does a good job invalidating regular interaction. If the opponent does not have counterspells or lifegain, Burn has the long game inevitability and puts the onus on their opponent to end the game before a Lava Spike does. Most decks do not have the right kind of interaction game 1 but can gain access to it in the sideboard in cards like Leyline of Sanctity, Kitchen Finks or Timely Reinforcements.
Burn has a difficult time against decks good blockers and incidental lifegain. Various Eldrazi decks and Collected Company decks can overwhelm the battlefield with cards like Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence or Matter Reshaper and Thought-Knot Seer. Eldrazi decks make things more difficult with cards like Chalice of the Void or Basilisk Collar, which can lock burn out of casting its spells or gain large chunks of life.
Burn has trouble interacting with fast combo decks like Griselshoal, Ad Nauseam and Storm. If they have a fast draw, they win. Sometimes the combo deck will keep a slower hand with too many cantrips and Burn can kill them before they set up their winning combination of cards. These matchups are die roll dependent and a true coin flip.
When sideboarding with Burn, you can't deviate too far from your gameplan of overloading your opponent with direct damage. You need every card to deal 20 damage; drawing multiple reactive non-damaging spells can be damning. Because of this, your sideboard cards either deal damage or serve a very specific purpose. You will often see cards like Destructive Revelry,Smash to Smithereens, or Searing Blood in order to deal with opposing permanents while still keeping the pressure on their life total. In some matchups, like Affinity, Infect or the Mirror, burn morphs into a more controlling deck and brings in these cards to interact with these faster decks. In matchups where you are the control deck you should board out cards that do not target creatures like Boros Charm, Lava Spike, and Skullcrack.
You will also see more targeted hate cards in the Burn sideboard such as Rest in Peace, Ensnaring Bridge, Kor Firewalker, and Path to Exile. While these cards do not deal damage, they are powerful cards intended for shutting down various combo decks that are able to win faster than you can kill them. Do not make the mistake of bringing in Rest in Peace against Snapcaster Mage; this card is intended for decks like Dredge or Griselshoal where it can single-handedly win the game. You need to maintain a critical mass of damage spells in your deck in order to win and any card that doesn't completely hose the opponent isn't worth the slot.
The rest of the sideboard contains additional copies of Skullcrack or Lightning Helix (based on how many of each you maindeck) as well as Deflecting Palm, a situational burn spell that works well against large attackers or other direct damage spells in the mirror.
Sometimes its correct to board out creatures, especially Goblin Guide on the draw against large creature decks where it will get stone walled. Eidolon is also bad against decks that empty their hand quickly or decks that are just as fast, such as the mirror or Affinity.
- Mulligan Hands with more than three lands that do not include repeatable damage source i.e. creatures
- Leave a fetchland in play until needed in order to trigger landfall at instant speed for Searing Blaze. If it is the last turn of the game and you need to draw a burn spell, crack your fetchland in your upkeep to assure landfall while also thinning your deck of a brick draw.
- Skullcrack stops damage prevention which can let you trade one of your attacking creatures for their protection from red creatures.
- Against a deck with counterspells, the best way to play the game is to spend the first two turns dealing them damage and getting their life total low. Once they have enough lands to start operating, you want to make them use their mana as awkwardly as possible. It is often right to cast an instant speed burn spell in their upkeep so that they have to use their mana to respond and haven't drawn their card for turn yet. You can also do it during their end step if you have a Skullcrack effect and are afraid of a lifegain card. Once they are below 9 or so, and you have a few burn spells in hand, its okay to start playing draw-go. Accumulate enough burn spells to kill them basically twice, and then on their end step go for the kill. When they counter some of them and are tapped out, untap and kill them. The control matchup for Burn is really tricky and requires a lot of practice. People think of Burn as brainless, and sometimes it is, but this matchup is the opposite. The better player will generally win.
The Future of Burn
Due to the fetchland mana base, Burn can spread into other colors very easily. Lists have played Black for Bump in the Night in the past or more prominently featured Green for Atarka's Command and Wild Nacatl. Those versions have tailed off in prominence and the archetype has coalesced into its current Red-White splash Green form. If the format changes, Burn has the flexibility that the other colors add and can find tools to adapt. Burn can even change to adapt newly printed tools; it didn't take long for Burn to add Blue for Treasure Cruise when that card was printed.
Burn lines up very well when the format is midrange-centric. When this is the case, it is a great choice. When this isn't the case, Burn is still a fine choice because Lava Spiking your opponent to death is still a viable strategy. Burn is a reliable deck and a good one to have on the shelf as a safe choice and sometimes a great choice.
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