Let's talk about burn baby.
First we'll get the criticisms out of the way. Burn decks are autopilot decks that rely on luck they don't interact with the opponent and they're not fun to play against. That said so is Dredge. These aren't compelling reasons for ignoring the deck though. Much like Dredge Burn can be a good option in certain metagames because it exploits deficiencies in the present decks. Having been smoked by more Burn decks lately than I'd care to admit to it's time to talk about the much-maligned red deck.
What is Burn Really Good At?
Burn decks are essentially combo decks that require you to draw a certain number of cards and then you win. This is the Philosophy of Fire. With every burn spell ever printed in our hands the average amount of damage a burn deck can deal with one card is about 3.5. Thus we need to rip about six burn spells and resolve them to kill the opponent. That's not hard-- it's the opening hand plus a few draws if we're factoring that two in three cards we draw are spells and the rest are mana sources.
Burn decks are also good at ignoring the opponent. One can easily sit back and hurl spells at the foe laughing at the dead creature removal they have in hand and grinning when they have to peel off a Force of Will to counter a Magma Jet. It has essentially the same gameplan against every deck around making it easy to pick up and hard to mess up when faced with random metagame decks. The other big edge that burn has is that it makes Ad Nauseam more painful to cast by the turn forcing the opponent to go in early and risk losing to Fireblast or face the possibility of Ad Nauseam never being profitable to cast past that.
What Are Burn Decks Really Bad Against?
Lifegain but that's been around since Alpha. Circles of Protection but again Alpha. Counterbalance is a huge annoyance that can wholesale shut the deck down. It is I think the biggest problem that a Burn deck faces. A modern burn deck must be fast enough to race counterbalance or have enough varied threats that it can ignore the Enchantment. There are ways to proof the burn deck against Counterbalance. In this article you'll see a proposal for a deck that can handily win against Counterbalance without dramatically slowing down the goldfish speed of Burn.
Burn also has some problems against discard as each card you lose is a Healing Salve for the opponent. You can see how Hymn To Tourach really eats your lunch based on that. There is a window between turns four and six where Burn has the opponent on the wires and if they live past that the game goes against Burn quite badly. Discard strategies push this timeline back even further and with the success in GP: Chicago of two Black/X decks sporting heavy discard it's possible to see it rear up in greater numbers.
While discard from the opponent is painful enough sometimes the Burn deck draws three lands in a row and cannot seal the game. A burn deck bereft of repeatable damage or card manipulation will fall victim to this problem often losing when the opponent can get behind their counterwall or charge up two Tarmogoyfs and end the game before that last burn card ever comes up. In Legacy we have enough cards to address this issue creatively as you'll see later.
Our Burn Inventory
As I mentioned before we have access to every burn spell there is (excepting Falling Star!) so let's take an inventory of the good ones grouped by their damage potentials.
Magma Jet is a staple of the Burn deck. Though it's relatively weak in the damage-to-mana ratio it offers much-needed deck manipulation and it looks killer in foil. I endorse four in anything playing with fire.
Cursed Scroll was popular in Standard and Extended when legal but it didn't make a big splash in Legacy. It deserves re-evaluation because it can slip in under Counterbalance and is a reliable repeatable source of damage. It's colorless killing Burrenton Forge-Tenders and skirting Circles of Protection. It doesn't immediately affect the board and takes four mana to (maybe) deal two damage so it's a lot less powerful in a suicidally fast deck than in one that's built to be slower and more reliable.
Ankh of Mishra can eat a quarter or more of the opponent's life on a single fetchland activation making the two invested mana really may off. However it's really bad drawn off the top when you're looking for business and this makes it far riskier in my experience. Further a surprising number of decks can function with two lands in play. For example one of my test games involved a CounterTop deck taking ten from Ankh (my kingdom for Hidetsugu's Second Rite!) and sitting pretty with Top and Counterbalance in play. Tarmogoyf came out and ended the game because I couldn't punch the damage through. That was disheartening but on the other hand the Ankh off the top can feed Shrapnel Blast and it really punishes control decks that might otherwise be able to drag you into a painful long game. Its stock rises when you have Chrome Mox handy which can power out the Ankh painfully soon.
Barbarian Ring is a stable card at first glance but it has a lot of ugly faults in a burn deck. First you'll rarely hit Threshold when you need Ring to do its work. Second it falls victim to Wasteland hate. Finally it makes your Fireblasts that much harder to cast. I'd run a maximum of two Barbarian Rings if I were intent on the card; any more create saddeningly diminishing returns.
Volcanic Fallout is a new contender and I wasn't going to include it until I tested a burn deck sporting four copies. The three mana is pretty brutal but it completely avoids Counterbalance and chops up manlands and Trinket Mages while you inflict the last few points on the opponent. I did not want to like this card believe me. It's proven itself and is worthy of your consideration.
Sulfuric Vortex goes alongside Fallout and is a delicious and repeatable source of damage. It's costly to get out and doesn't sling a whole lot of pain. You'll need three mana and three turns to deal six damage with this card so I think it's best when fighting Counterbalance decks because it punishes their slowness.
Mishra's Factory rounds out our Twos. It's a repeatable Barbarian Ring that fuels up Shrapnel Blast. It still hinders Fireblast and makes more ouchies from Price of Progress but it's a critical weapon in choking the last points of damage out of an opponent. Four seems like the right number but you could skip them altogether if you're on Cursed Scrolls instead.
Lightning Bolt is a classic and I haven't found a list that skips out on it. Lava Spike acts as Lightning Bolt 5-8 and Chain Lightning acts as Bolts 9-12. They form I think the core of the Burn deck. The sorcery speed of some of the spells has been a hindrance at times mostly because it's harder to stack-trick someone with Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top in play.
Shard Volley is the "fixed" Lightning Bolt and deserves some mention. Negatively it's bad in a one-land hand and eats up Mountains that could fuel Fireblast instead. On the other hand it greatly increases the critical burn mass and makes the combo faster. I really want four in a deck but I'm imagining times when I have two of them in my opening hand and I desperately want to avoid that. It's worth keeping in mind but we may want less than four in a final draft of a deck.
Incinerate has long appeared alongside Lightning Bolt killing River Boas in years past. The regeneration prevention is irrelevant in Legacy so we're looking at a two mana three-point burn spell. It's worth hanging onto if we need to make up the last few slots in the deck.
Lightning Helix oh my. With great power comes great responsibility and in this case it means running fetchlands and Plateaus. This opens you up to Wastelands from the opponent colorscrew and being dinged on your own Price of Progress. In the end I don't think it's worth the downsides to run a spell that's Incinerate and three life points. However if you're running creatures in a Boros-style deck its stock rises dramatically as you'll be interacting with your opponent much more and will probably need lifegain against decks with monsters of their own.
The Fours And The Mores
Fireblast is another classic and it's a key to finishing the game frighteningly fast. The mere threat of it changes the value of your other cards for the better.
Price of Progress shines in Legacy. At GP: Chicago I heard several stories of "and then he Priced me for 12 and I lost" or "he dropped Manabond and seven lands so I Priced him and won on the spot." When I was playing against a Boros deck I had to contort to make sure I wouldn't die to a topdecked Price of Progress. It's a burn spell as well as disruption as you force the opponent to consider whether they really want that dual land or if they'd be better with a basic instead. At its worst in Legacy it'll be a Shock and at its best it will be... um we don't have a card that deals a dozen damage for two mana so the analogy falls apart here. Run it!
Shrapnel Blast rounds out our big-ticket burn. The artifact problem is easily fixed in Legacy burn decks; you have Chrome Mox Great Furnace Cursed Scroll and Mishra's Factory to start with. Simple to support and devastating to resolve. Another card I highly endorse.
The Supporting Cast
Browbeat gets some attention among casual burn players but it never really gets there in Legacy decks. The topic has been thoroughly discussed in other formats before so I'll just sum up and say that you get the option you wanted least. This will usually mean the three cards. One of those will be a mana source and if the other two are Lightning Bolts then we've paid 2RRR for six damage. This is not cost-effective at all.
Isochron Scepter on the other hand keeps the fuel coming and with Magma Jet or Price of Progress ends the game in short order. I hesitate to run more than two because it forces you to hold a burn spell that you could be casting and shortening the clock. It's better when you have it in your hand and topdeck a suitable burn spell to Imprint. This is where we get out the cost-benefit ratio though-- if Scepter is standing in for a 3-damage spell how much more should we get out of it to be worth our time? We profit with three activations meaning we're committing ten mana and two cards for nine damage. You can see why it's attractive and usually wrong to play based on this.
Sensei's Divining Top hasn't gotten much attention in Burn decks but it's the one card that I feel can revolutionize them. Applying our same cost-benefit ratio we're looking at an extra mana every turn to greatly increase our chances of drawing a burn spell. I can dig this. Combined with fetchlands it assures that we'll see good spells when we want them and won't draw lands nearly as often. It fuels up Shrapnel Blast and brings Fireblast and Price of Progress to our hand.
With the analysis taken care of here are some sample decks ranging from fast and risky to slower and reliable.
First there's this list which took first at a 35-person event recently piloted by Mike Hofmann.
Though there are four Isochron Scepters they get a little added value thanks to Fork. You can copy Ponders or Brainstorms if you need to if you're planning to topdeck digging into more burn. The Flame Javelin dodges Counterbalance but it's hard to cast and would likely be better as Cursed Scroll or something similar. I like the innovation of Volcanic Fallout and the general versatility of the deck in general. Though it isn't as one-minded as a straight burn deck could be it has a lot of punch against different strategies and I like that a lot.
Next we have more of a straightforward burn deck piloted to a 6th place finish by Ralf Bhringer.
This list adds in Mogg Fanatic and Rift Bolt for more varied sources of damage. I'm not thrilled about this tack but Fanatic does a good job of slowing down Dredge and can deal with utility dorks while getting some damage in. If I were playing this in a current metagame I'd swap in Price of Progress maindeck for the Browbeats and take Flamebreaks out for Volcanic Fallout. It does however illustrate how burn decks can take different angles and still end well.
I'd be happy to go more in-depth with burn decks in later articles if readers would like to read that. If you've got a variant of burn that's been doing well for you post it in the feedback forum and we'll get some discussion going! I want to venture out with a decklist of my own but it'd be more helpful to have a body of lists that we can go from. Have you tried Top? Can you make Barbarian Ring work? Is Browbeat better than I think?
Stay tuned for next week where we'll interview some of the Top 8ers from GP: Chicago and get their insights on their performance!
Until next week…