Burn in Modern


The toughest thing about the burn genre in any format is focus.  Because of this, the burn player has to write three things down on a notecard.  He needs to carry the notecard with him to every match.  He needs to memorize it and review it between games.  Here’s what to write on your burn notecard:

1) Burn is a combo deck.  Just like traditional combo players need to draw the pieces of their combo to win, my deck needs to draw at least 20 points of damage to kill my opponent.
2) Unfortunately, burn is the most fragile combo deck in history.  I have absolutely no way to disrupt your combo or interact with the board unless I spend my burn spells on your creatures.
3) More unfortunately, every time I throw burn at your creature I’m not throwing it at your face.  A Lightning Bolt toward your Tarmogoyf is the same as handing you 3 life.

To make matters worse, when we import the burn genre from Legacy into Modern, we lose some fantastic pieces:

Chain Lightning
Price of Progress
Flame Rift
Pyrostatic Pillar in sideboard
Sulfuric Vortex in sideboard

Those cards represent a significant amount of efficient damage that’s lost when we play burn in Modern.  So why would we ever want to play it?  Here are some reasons:

1) Burn is remarkably consistent.  You have roughly 40 cards that deal two or more damage to your opponent and almost all of them can deal that damage immediately.  Show me another combo deck that can win games without drawing its most important cards!  (There isn’t one).  But you can win playing burn without ever seeing a Lightning Bolt or a Goblin Guide.

2) You can usually ignore the board state.  Unless you’re facing lethal creature damage or you have to make targeting decisions with a Searing Blaze, you really don’t care what spells your opponent is playing.  It’s actually pretty calming, especially if you don’t have a good handle on how all the Modern decks work.  If you have a sick feeling that your opponent is about to pull off some weird combo, you don’t have to worry because none of your cards could have stopped it anyway!  Burn is a deck that puts your balls on the table and demands that your opponent win in 3-5 turns.  For this reason (the sheer absence of any tricks), Burn is considered by some players to be a “beginner’s deck.”  This is complete nonsense and it’s usually said by someone with less than 10 life on turn three.

3) Unlike the Legacy format, Burn is still considered to be a mediocre deck in Modern.  This means that people aren’t really devoting specific sideboard slots to your Burn deck in the same way that they’re starting to do in Legacy.  It will be a long time (or never) before we see any Leyline of Sanctity or Kor Firewalkers in our Modern tournaments.

4) Burn bypasses literally every problem deck in the format, with only one exception.  In all seriousness, the Modern Burn deck is faster than Urzatron, Birthing Pod variants, Splinter Twin, and Faeries.  It changes the gameplan against Affinity by just blowing up their early rush (because top-decking one artifact at a time will lose).  The exception here is Pyromancer.  I haven’t tested that very much, but I imagine that game will usually go to the Pyromancer player unless he can’t dig far enough to find his win condition.  (I should add that the stupid white life-gain deck with Serra Ascendant is also untested, but I don’t think that will get too popular since it’s so vulnerable).  You never feel like a matchup is “un-winnable” when you have 12 points of damage in your opening hand!

5) It’s not nearly as expensive.  (I had to write that even though it’s not strategy-related).

So let’s build a burn deck and then look at some variants and color splashes!

Modern Burn: The Core

4 Lightning Bolt (3 anywhere at any time)
4 Lava Spike (3 to the face on my turn)
4 Rift Bolt (3 anywhere on my next upkeep)

Without these 12 cards you don’t have a burn deck.  You need them and you want to draw as many of them as possible.  If tournaments let you play a 17-card deck, you’d play these 12 and five lands and you would tell your opponent that he has four turns to win.  Sadly, that’s not the case…

Perimeter Players

4 Goblin Guide (2 + 2 + ?)
2-4 Hellspark Elemental (3? + 3?)
2-4 Grim Lavamancer (continual 2 damage until they’re dead)

These cards add stability and round out your options.  Sometimes a Goblin Guide just keeps on hitting.  For those wonderful games, if you get eight damage out of a Guide, you’re going to win.  You want some amount of Hellspark Elemental, although he gets annoying to draw in multiples.  Still, your 1st and 2nd turns want to be Goblin Guide into Hellspark Elemental and then save your burn for finishing.  Grim Lavamancer is incredibly functional, but also incredibly annoying to draw in multiples.  Remember that you can block a Batterskull with the Lavamancer and then use his ability to kill himself without letting your opponent gain life.

Personal Preferences

2-4 Shard Volley (3 anywhere at any time, but it will cost you a land)
2-4 Spark Elemental (3 very quickly, but dead just as quickly)
2-4 Thunderous Wrath (Avacyn Restored Miracle is amazing off the top but awful in your hand)
2-4 Magma Jet (2 damage + library manipulation)
2-4 Keldon Marauders (2 guaranteed damage + upside if they have no blockers)
2-4 Vexing Devil (4 damage or a nice body)
1-2 Ball Lightning (6/1 trample haste that dies soon)
4 Searing Blaze (3 to you and to your creature)
2-4 Burst Lightning (2 early game and 4 late-game)
1-3 Flames of the Blood Hand or Char or Flame Javelin (these all deal 4 damage for 3 mana)
1-2 Slagstorm or Earthquake (finishers or ground-clearers)

There’s a lot we could say about these cards.  The first question I ask myself when putting together a Burn list is:  “Do I want to draw this off the top with no cards in hand on turn five?”  I ask that because that’s often where I find myself if my draw was sub-par or if I’m flooded.  For that reason, I personally don’t play Spark Elemental (awful against a board with creatures) or Keldon Marauders (I can’t wait two turns to do a 2nd damage).  Shard Volley is fantastic, but you don’t want to see more than one in your opening hand.  The same goes for Thunderous Wrath (play two, not four).  Vexing Devil gets seriously worse as the game progresses.  Honestly, most of these creatures have their place in Red Deck Wins or Sligh, not Burn.  Ball Lightning is an exception because it doesn’t really care about being a creature.  Important note:  I believe Searing Blaze belongs in your sideboard.  Bringing them in against creature decks is better than siding them out against combo decks.  Last thing:  I HATE [ard]Magma Jet[/card] but I think it’s ok to play.  I see it as a trap and I don’t play it anymore.  Paying two mana for two damage is the most inefficient thing that Burn can do and I don’t think the Scry effect is worth it.

The Undesirables (too slow, too cute, too inefficient, or too iffy):

Staggershock Shrine of Burning Rage Forked Bolt Punishing Fire Hell’s Thunder Figure of Destiny Boggart Ram-Gang Stigma Lasher Incinerate Kargan Dragonlord Kiln Fiend Dragon’s Claw Demigod of Revenge Porcelain Legionnaire Slith Firewalker Chandra’s Phoenix


4 Scalding Tarn 4 Arid Mesa 12 Mountain

This is the most accepted landbase if you’re running Grim Lavamancer, who turns your discarded fetches into Burn fuel.  If you’re not running the Lavaboy, just play 20 mountains and don’t get cute.  Don’t play Teetering Peaks – this isn’t Standard and you need your lands to come into play untapped.  If you keep your curve down, 20 is the right number and it’s only a little greedy.  Remember that flooding is worse for you than being mana-screwed.

So if you twisted my arm for a mono-red burn list in Modern, I’d tell you to splash black (I’ll explain later).  But if you insisted, I’d say:


4 Searing Blaze 3-4 Faerie Macabre (I can’t say enough about how good this card is against the field)
XX Combust (must-have against Splinter Twin)
XX Blood Moon (ruins a lot of decks including Urzatron)
XX Smash to Smithereens (great against Affinity or sword people)
XX Ensnaring Bridge (against creature-based strategies, including Urzatron)

Obviously, sideboards are meta-dependent, but I’d do something like that if I was going into an unknown field.  Sulfur Elemental could be cutely effective but it still costs three and doesn’t deal any damage.


Here’s where the fun starts!  I wouldn’t play a mono-red deck right now when there are so many good reasons to splash!  Bump in the Night gives you four more Lava Spikes.  That is SERIOUSLY significant.  That being said, that’s where I’d stop with the black splash.  Some burn players also opt to add Dark Confidant for the extra draws.  I think this is needlessly inefficient:  your opponent needs to be taking six damage each turn after turn one.  There’s no ideal turn that you want to spend casting Dark Confidant and not dealing them damage.

This is the most consistent version of Burn, in my opinion.  You deal 20 damage and you don’t spend too much mana to get there.  I’ve already talked about these cards, so I won’t say too much about the black splash except to say that it’s really good and that you shouldn’t skimp on your black mana sources.  You never want to be unable to cast a Bump in the Night in your hand.

Grixis Burn or “BURn”

This has been my pet project for the last two weeks.  Innistrad gave us a wonderful and all-format defining card in Snapcaster Mage and though it has mostly been used in permission decks, it has a home in Burn also.  The best thing about Snapcaster is that it allows you to play fewer copies of your best cards.  Your threats get more diverse but stay consistent.  Having said that, the worst thing about Snapcaster is that it utilizes cards that would previously have been fed to Lavaboy, which is annoying.  Splashing for blue also gives you access to efficient library manipulation and the possibility of adding Goblin Guides #5-8, aka “Delver of Secrets.” Note that if you do add Delver, you have to cut back on creatures in favor of more instants/sorceries to ensure the early flip.

Here’s the Grixis burn list I’ve been testing:

As you can see, there’s very little that I would hate to draw off the top after turn five.  A pet card of mine in testing has been Falkenrath Aristocrat so I’d like to make room for a singleton of him (side note – not only does he hit for an immediate four damage in the air, but you’re running two humans that make him bigger and indestructible:  Lavaboy, and Snapcaster…just food for thought!)  The deck plays out just as explosively as the mono-red version, but I think it has more oomph in turns four through six if the game goes a bit longer.  Now you’re able to re-use burn spells, dig through your library efficiently, etc.

Remember my first sentence about focus?  That’s really the trick here.  Adding colors is fun (and I think worth it) but we need to retain our focus.  Adding Remand, Spell Pierce, Delay or some other form of counter-magic to the board wouldn’t be terrible to improve our match-ups against Splinter Twin and Pyromancer but it’s very difficult to cut cards in burn.  The line between “burn with a blue splash” and “blue/red tempo” is pretty blurry.  Notice that Delver of Secrets is also acceptable in U/R tempo, but I find it annoying, unfocused and clunky in burn.  Just my initial thoughts.

I’ll leave you with a list of cards (mostly cute) that I want to test in burn:

Noxious Revival (for when you need another Bolt…it is card disadvantage, but is insane with Thunderous Wrath)
Postmortem Lunge (pay two mana and two life to re-use Snapcaster, which lets you re-use burn?  Ok!)
Stingscourger (it’s cute to bounce big creatures in mono-red)
Gitaxian Probe (I’ll always wonder if this should be mandatory in every deck)
Crack the Earth or Boom // Bust  (my burn deck is better on low land drops than my opponent’s deck is…)

Ryan Mayo

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