Most Commander wisdom encourages players to avoid burn effects. Lightning Bolt and Magma Jet may do well in tournaments, but they rarely carry their weight against multiple opponents. Players favor big stompy creatures like Craterhoof Behemoth to break through a stalemate. Removal is usually a Swords to Plowshares or other unconditional removal.
Rarely are there spells that can remove a creature through damage. But we should be using more burn spells. Maybe not as far as Lightning Bolt, but there are many spells we could use. The Lightning Bolt problem is the biggest mental challenge; once we get past it, there is a whole new world of burn applications for Commander.
Lightning Bolt Problem
Burn has a host of issues in Commander. Even in 60-Card Land, burn gets a terrible reputation. For many this stems from the Lightning Bolt problem. Lightning Bolt is a fantastic spell that was not reprinted for years, brought back, and hidden away again. In Modern it is a massive influence in the way creatures and other spells are evaluated. In Legacy it has a lesser influence, but the card still carries weight.
Lightning Bolt is dreadful in multiplayer games. Oh, you can certainly find ways it works. But the card doesn't carry enough weight. In a regular multiplayer game, Lightning Bolt is too underwhelming. The three damage is good, but against several opponents with twenty life, it isn't enough. Lightning Bolt can nail some small creatures, but you can't guarantee it with four-toughness creatures and tribal lords around. Commander amplifies this problem: the life totals are higher and the creatures are larger.
Part of this problem is from the abundant ramp options. Players don't need small efficient creatures when they can play Rampant Growth, Explosive Vegetation, and then Rhox. How much help is a Nimble Mongoose against Rhox? The ramp options extend to all colors with mana rocks, so no one gets left in the dust. The bigger creatures come with bigger toughness. As the format evolved and continues to evolve into more ways to go over the top of each other, poor Lightning Bolt is left on the sidelines. Three damage does almost nothing against 40 life.
One of the hallmark burn spells is written off in Commander. How much better do other burn spells fare? Actually… surprisingly well. There are small-scale battlefield sweepers, burn spells for specific applications of damage, and larger spells that can hit each opponent. Each has a place in Commander, allowing decks to combat a wide variety of threats.
The first group is the small sweepers. Anger of the Gods may not seem to do much, especially given the Lightning Bolt problem, but three damage will clear out most tokens, aggro assaults, and small utility creatures. When cast after combat, it can help exile a bunch of creatures. With increased printing of recursion commanders like Meren of Clan Nel Toth and Ravos, Soultender, exile effects matter more than people realize.
Whipflare and Pyroclasm are similar effects for clearing out small creatures. My favorite of the bunch is probably Sulfurous Blast, since it can bump to three damage or be used at instant speed in response to something like an Overrun. Kozilek's Return and Radiant Flames are useful for recursion or selective scaling. Kozilek's Return has more use than expected with the graveyard trigger: Sword of Fire and Ice or Sword of War and Peace no longer protect a small creature from the five damage. When exiling is super-important, seek out Yamabushi's Storm. Take that, Blood Artist and Zulaport Cutthroat!
The next burn group provides specific applications of damage. Comet Storm can deal however much damage as you can afford and it can hit multiple targets too. Fireball is similar but divides evenly; Comet Storm is far more mana-efficient. Instant speed lets you Counterspell in a way with Comet Storm too. Technically you don't counter anything, but if a player leaves the game, so do all their effects on the stack. No more scary spell!
Fall of the Titans lets you pick off two creatures, scorch a creature and a player, or blast two players. When you surge it (and you should, as there are enough cheap spells like Wayfarer's Bauble to make it worthwhile) the cost is massively reduced. This helps you pick off anything. Additionally, when you need to burn a creature with six or more toughness, going to the dome makes the effect more useful so that you do not tap out to remove a single creature.
This group includes several good spells, but I just want to highlight Fanning the Flames. Five mana and X, deal X, keep Fanning the Flames for next turn. You can take out a creature, destroy a planeswalker, take off large chunks of your opponents' life totals, and keep repeating the damage. Buyback is a very powerful effect that is too often overlooked.
The specific application of burn damage is very useful in games. It does become inefficient to destroy a creature, but cards that don't impact the battlefield at all like Panharmonicon and Vedalken Orrery are heavily played, so I think we're safe using a couple of inefficient spells to remove big scary creatures. Sometimes the giant creature needs to go right now.
The kings of multiplayer burn are the sweeping effects that hit (nearly) everything. Earthquake et al. can overwhelm the opposition. Dealing nine damage to everyone doesn't necessarily seem amazing, but that radically changes how players react to threats. Going from twenty life to just over ten life means that any two good-sized creatures are threatening. Random collateral damage is suddenly threatening.
The best thing about the huge burn spells that hit everything is the ability to overwhelm your opponents. Typically this is from hitting each opponent and clearing blockers. Overwhelming them with damage is spectacular. Using a Reverberate or similar effect can blast through most defenses you can expect to see. If a game is going poorly, the huge Earthquake may be lethal to you, but the whole rest of the table is now perilously low on life. It wraps up pretty quickly from there and everyone can enjoy another game. Everyone wins. Well… your victory is mostly a moral victory, because you blew yourself up.
Managing the Clock
Lightning Bolt struggles for relevance in a world with 40 starting life. The high life totals discourage a lot of early aggression. The buildup in the early stages of Commander typically means that little life is lost until the game is solidly underway. The burn spells change this. Flame Rift, Sizzle, and more start applying pressure that cannot be stopped by a Solemn Simulacrum or another chump blocker. The biggest gain here is in play time.
Many (too many) Commander games drag. You can reach a point where everyone has enough battlefield presence that any attack opens you up to a counterattack you cannot recover from. This extends the game time so that “Commander games take forever.” Heard that one before? Burn fixes this. When people are quickly down a quarter of their life, they start taking action. Sitting back and playing battlecruiser Magic is no longer viable. When you are better-equipped for this fight, the game is to your advantage.
The other benefit that you don't take as long to finish a game. How many games are started and then have someone scoop partway in? Hopefully few people experience this. The game radically shifts when a player scoops and often swings the game strongly into one player's favor. Burn eliminates this problem. Games go faster. The perks continue (like Obsidian Fireheart reminder text) where you can jam extra games. More Commander is always a good thing.
Permanents that burn are another way to continue managing the clock. Sulfuric Vortex; Chandra, Roaring Flame; Pestilence Demon; Squallmonger; and more cards can apply pressure over and over. These cards force your opponents to speed up or lose to little chips of damage. They might not seem like much, but they take a toll over turn. An early ultimate off Chandra, Roaring Flame will cause a game to wrap up much faster, while a quick Sulfuric Vortex can easily deal ten or more damage to the whole table. If you combine this with an effect like Manabarbs or Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, the table is in for a world of hurt.
Clear the Chaff
Besides overwhelming your opponents, you can scale a spell like Fault Line to leave specific creatures alive. For example, Earthquake cannot hit fliers, but you can destroy a few Spiders that are holding back your Dragons, Demons, or other fliers. You can also scale the damage to clear a path for your token horde. It might seem counterintuitive, but many token builds run cards like Collective Blessing, Beastmaster Ascension, or Eldrazi Monument (for Rolling Earthquake). Burning everything and everyone for five damage and keeping your creatures alive to attack is amazing! You have to try it one day. And when things are dire, you can battlefield-wipe with Fault Line at instant speed.
When you are waiting battlefield positions, take into consideration using an Earthquake to open up a position for one opponent to attack another. When Timmy is Johnny's threat, you can assist Johnny in beating Timmy for you. You should always look for opportunities for free value.
Not Only Red
Red has the most burn spells, obviously. But other colors can participate in the burn fun too. Hurricane and Squall Line are the easiest examples. Instead of taking out only ground-pounders, these burn spells take out only fliers. And players. Black has the entire family of Pestilence effects (Thrashing Wumpus is the best for being able to “wump” a table) which red copied in Planar Chaos with Pyrohemia. These effects are highly scalable, hit everyone, and can easily be manipulated to suit you. You just need to put a little work into making the best of them.
If you just want a big dumb effect with no work, Exsanguinate has your back. If you want to hit a specific player, Drain Life and Soul Burn can help. Corrupt scales in a different way but still scales against a big scary threat.
White needs to reach out for a bit of help. Aurelia's Fury, Death Grasp, Energy Bolt, and Debt to the Deathless can all be scaled. You lose the versatility for the options of gaining life in most cases. However, white is a nice addition to the burn package, plus you can hide behind Circle of Protection: Red or Story Circle. If you don't want to bother with more versatility, Mark of Asylum is useful, as is Personal Sanctuary.
Blue does struggle with burning out opponents. Fortunately, blue has an entire history of having better spells than everyone else. So don't fear, blue mages. You have Cyclonic Rift to break through a stall, Redirect for a big targeted burn spell, Aethersnatch and Commandeer to use them against your opponents, and regular Counterspell to say no.
Light 'Em Up
Burn can do much more in Commander than it is given credit for. You don't even need a full-on burn deck to make use of the many options. Rather, you can find a few spells to give your deck a bit more reach in the late-game and some more help in breaking through your opponents. If you are only going to run a single targeted burn spell, I suggest Red Sun's Zenith or Fanning the Flames to give yourself more uses of the spell.
If you go wide with the Earthquake-style spells, sometimes using them as a battlefield wipe is the correct play. While I prefer to keep around some fatties to keep the game moving, your games will develop differently. Do what works best for you.
What burn spells have you found success with? How often do you play burn spells in your Commander games? What about some of the nonred spells?