Optimal Primer: Burn

by ReinaldoVrins

Introduction

Burn is, and throughout its existence as a pauper strategy has always been, a low-tier deck. I even think that this will likely always remain the case since all colors can bring a very strong plan to fight Burn’s single minded strategy. Still, there are several reasons to bring red damage spells to tournament areas. First, the burn deck is the hallmark of consistency. It kills the opponent on turn five – sometimes a bit sooner, sometimes a bit later. It is great at punishing opponents or metagames who stumble, durdle, or can’t interact well enough. Secondly, the deck is easy to pilot well. While this primer will try to help you to master playing the deck, its single-mindedness and straightforward plan make it easy to pick up even if you’ve been out of the loop or new to the format. Thirdly, games with Burn are always races, so they end fast. If it is to your advantage to play quick rounds because you are a busy person, you want to double-queue, you are having a sick day from work or just don’t have a long attention span, then Keldon Marauders can be your friend. Lastly, some players just want to throw Lightning Bolts at opponents until the game ends. Burn has a certain attraction because it just has a different attitude to the game compared with other decks.

ReinaldoVrins 4-0 Daily Event 10-5-2013

Lands (18)
18 Mountain

Creatures (8)
Keldon Marauders
Kiln Fiend

Spells (34)
Burst Lightning
Chain Lightning
Flame Rift
Fireblast
Lava Spike
Lightning Bolt
Needle Drop
Rift Bolt
Searing Blaze
Sideboard (15)
Curse of the Pierced Heart
Electrickery
Flaring Pain
Martyr of Ashes
Flame Rift
Pyroblast
Smash to Smithereens

The Deck

I’ve built my deck with one concept in front of mind: mana efficiency. In order to be able to be a consistent deck (which is Burn’s biggest advantage) with only 18 lands, we don’t play any 3cc drop spells and only 14 2cc spells. At 1cc, we find one of our best cards in Lightning Bolt. Playing this deck where all his riff-offs are the bread and butter (Chain Lightning, Lava Spike, Rift Bolt) will show you how much more powerful the original really is. The other 1-drops Burst Lightning and Needle Drop are filler and easily the worst 8 cards in the deck. Don’t be fooled by all the other text on Burst Lightning, it is just a Shock – treat it as such. The games where you kick it will be few and far between. Needle Drop only does 1 damage for 1 mana and is thus very inefficient. I will include more analysis on cantripping below. Fireblast costs zero mana and would be in the top 3 cards in the deck if it did only 3 damage. The bonus damage is huge and drawing this card will often make the difference between winning or losing a game. In order to see play at 2cc a card has to bring something good to the table. Searing Blaze is one of the three best cards in the deck – it helps your goal while decreasing your opponent’s clock. Keldon Marauders does only 2 damage to the opponent, but it can block for 2 turns, also decreasing the opponent’s clock. Only rarely will his attack get through in pauper, and obviously if it does you are in good shape. Kiln Fiend is the most inconsistent card in the deck, but he makes it in because it is so powerful. This is not a Kiln Fiend deck though, so don’t warp your game plan around him – just play it and let your opponent deal with him. If they don’t, they’re dead. If you dislike his inconsistency, want to cut on dead topdecks or find yourself in a hostile metagame (for example when MBC is popular) feel free to move him to the sideboard. I would suggest playing 4 Incinerates in his place. Flame Rift is 4 damage on one card, but is only good when you’re ahead in the race. Therefore it is the worst of your 2-drops.

Cards that did not make it into the deck but are defensible are Goblin Fireslinger, Spark Elemental, Firebolt, Shard Volley, Incinerate and Staggershock. While the Goblin Fireslinger has potential for more than 3 damage and can block once, he is very inconsistent, fragile and a terrible topdeck. Spark Elemental is mana efficient and might lure opponents to suboptimal play once they’ve seen him, but he does give your opponent a target for removal. Firebolt is a sorcery-speed Shock with a different one in a hundred upside than Burst Lightning. Shard Volley does everything you want but puts an extra strain on your manabase. Also, it is a false 1-drop because you can not cast it on turn 1. It remains a very popular choice with burn players though, and I could see playing one or two of these. Incinerate and its clones are not better than other two-drops in the deck. Staggershock is very powerful, but demands that you play more lands than 18 to stay consistent. The 19 land, 4 Staggershock decks that are seen in dailies these days will sometimes struggle to win on turn 5 against a durdling opponent because paying 3 mana for one card is just so much. That is not a place where I would want to be.

Card that sometimes wrongly get played are Forgotten Cave, Gitaxian Probe, Manamorphose, Dangerous Wager and Wild Guess. Burn is always in a race and needs to draw cards that are mana efficient. Every topdeck is worth on average around 1.5 damage to the opponent (lands and inconsistent damage sources like Needle Drop and Kiln Fiend count as 0 damage). Drawing a card is thus worse than having Shock in your hand. This disqualifies Gitaxian Probe, Manamorphose and the cycling half of Forgotten Cave, which other half is also terrible (a tapped mountain). Paying a mana or two life on top of that is just making it worse. Drawing two cards is as good as having a Lightning Bolt in hand (2 times 1.5 damage on average), but the fact that it costs two extra mana and a discard makes it like a build-it-yourself-worse-than-Sonic Seizure, which is obviously not remotely playable. Only Needle Drop is (begrudgingly) excused because it deals 1 damage itself, making its average damage output 2.5 (better than Shock). Instead of paying mana or life to hopefully find cards that do damage, it is better to just play cards that do damage.

Calculating Topdeck Damage:

# Name of Card Total # of Damage as a Topdeck
18 Mountain 0
4 Burst Lightning 8
4 Keldon Marauders 8
4 Kiln Fiend 0
4 Chain Lightning 12
2 Flame Rift 8
4 Fireblast 16
4 Lava Spike 12
4 Lightning Bolt 12
4 Needle Drop 0
4 Rift Bolt 12
4 Searing Blaze 4
60 Total 92
92/60=1.53 damage on average from a topdeck

Tips and Tricks

All cards in Burn decks combo with each other in order to reach the magical number: 20. A Burn deck needs to find, cast and resolve 6-8 spells in order to finish the opponent. The main goal for every card in the deck is to reduce the opponents life total as fast as possible. To cast these 6-8 spells, 3-4 mountains are needed. This means we will need 9-12 cards throughout the game. Beyond our opening seven, we will draw 2-5 extra cards. A good Burn player trusts his topdecks and knows that his draws will be good; the best part of our deck is our consistency. Beyond playing the deck well, which any average player can do, there are several advanced skills and strategies that the Burn deck will help you master: sequencing, mana efficiency, playing to your outs and racing. Mulliganing is also an advanced skill, but this deck won’t teach it to you since it is very straightforward. Mulligan 0-land hands, keep 1-4 land hands and mulligan hands with more lands. Since we lose 1.5 damage every time we mulligan, we are at a real disadvantage when we have to. I know I’ve been harping on mana efficiency a lot already, but it is very important when playing this deck and also when we consider to play for our outs. During our opponents turn, we look at our lands and hand to figure out if we can kill him. If we are 3 or 2 points short, we try to make sure we will have enough mana on our next turn to hardcast any topdecked Rift Bolt for the win. If you are close to losing, figure out what you need to draw in order to win and play as though you will draw it. For example, it is the end of your opponents turn. On his next turn you will die. He is at 8 and you have 2 mountains in play, 1 mountain and 1 Lightning Bolt in hand. Your chances to win are slim, but if you cast that Lightning Bolt at the end of the opponents turn, you will surely lose. The only way to win is if you draw Needle Drop for your turn and then Fireblast or Flame Rift off the Needle Drop. Always consider what you need to draw to win and if you need to free up your mana in order to cast it or need to take another line of play.

Sequencing is a very important skill in Magic. Sequencing means playing your lands and spells in a certain logical order; of course we always strive for correct sequencing. Sequencing correctly will not often matter but when it does, you’ll be glad you trained yourself to do it well. The first thing to keep in mind is mana efficiency. Since we want to end the game fast and we don’t play many lands, we must try to use all our mana every turn. Remember, we want the game to end on turn 5. If we somehow hit our first 3 land drops, that means we have 1+2+3+3+3=12 mana for the whole game. This is why I don’t like Staggershock: it will eat a quarter of ALL our mana in a game if the game goes the way we want it to. Don’t skip your turn 1 play because you will play Kiln Fiend on turn 2: we don’t worry about him, only our opponent does. The second thing to keep in mind is to make use of inconsistent cards when you can. Run out that Kiln Fiend early. Play Searing Blaze when you have both landfall and a target. Play Needle Drop when you can. The third thing to keep in mind is the order to play your spells. Suspend Rift Bolt first. Then, play your Sorceries. Your Instants are kept for last, with Fireblast as dead last. Only play it to either kill your opponent or to prevent your opponent from killing you. Keldon Marauders is a special case. Usually you want to run him out early, both to improve his chances to attack and to be sure his dying trigger will happen. If his chances to attack are approaching zero (for instance because of a Quirion Ranger or Loyal Cathar at the other side of the board) it might be wiser to hold him until turn 3-5 to make even better use of his ability to deter attacks and block. A last thing to consider is your lands. You should play out the lands you have if you need them to cast your spells. Usually, this means you play out your third land. Sometimes, this means you play out your fourth land to play two two mana spells in one turn. Other lands are best kept in hand to turn a Searing Blaze on later in the game.

Another good skill to have when playing this deck is to understand the concept of racing. The Burn deck is always in a race. The most important thing to consider during a race is that not only you, but both players are racing. The Burn deck races to kill the opponent with burn spells. Opponents try to win the race with creatures. There is always one player winning the race, and the other is losing the race. A good burn player will always consider the race and try to know who is winning the race. Don’t forget to trust your topdecks; if you can put your opponent to 6 life and he can’t kill you very fast, chances are good you can win. If you are winning the race, all is well and we can continue to burn our opponent. If our opponent is winning the race we have no choice but to burn our opponents creatures. When burning our opponents creatures, we will always have to ask ourselves how many extra cards we can draw by doing so. If we can draw three extra cards by burning an opponent’s creature, we will often do it because we are likely to recoup the damage with our draws. If we don’t draw any cards by burning creatures, we don’t do it and we will just have to hope that we draw our best cards to pull off a win from behind. When you think of every game as a race, you will also see extra value in playing cards that help you racing. Searing Blaze is awesome because it hurts your opponents clock without slowing yours down. Keldon Marauders can halt our opponents attacks for 2 turns, in which we will have drawn 3 extra damage. Kiln Fiend is also very good at racing since our opponent will often have to leave one or even two creatures back to make sure to not die to it. Then it can even (chump) block to make the race even more in our favor. When you understand the concept of racing you also understand why two common assumptions about Burn are wrong: it is sometimes said that Burn can’t win after turn 6 or that Burn can’t beat lifegain. While we prefer not to face either situation, both are very easy to overcome if our opponent is not killing us. Because of our consistency we will continue to draw good cards throughout the game: whether it is before or after turn 6. The same goes for lifegain: as long as we are allowed to continue to draw cards we can whittle down almost any life total. I once won a game against a mill deck who gained 32 life off of 4 Rest for the weary. We are not beaten by lifegain: we are only beaten if that lifegain means we will lose the race. If it wasn’t clear already, the race also means we will always choose to play first when we have the choice in order to get ahead.

Some tricks that will not come up often but might: you can use your Needle Drop targeting yourself to cycle it after you’ve been attacked, and you can use your Pyroblast to pump your Kiln Fiend by targeting any permanent. Also don’t forget that Searing Blaze can be used as an instant in a pinch, although you always prefer to have it landfalled obviously. As a final rules note on Searing Blaze, it has two targets so if they can remove the creature it is targeting before Searing Blaze resolves, it will not counter the spell and they will still suffer 3 damage to the head.

Match Ups Overview and Analysis

There are two things to consider when sideboarding: the race and mana efficiency. Don’t sideboard in too many cards that slow you down, they might cause you to lose a race you might have otherwise won.

Cyclops

The Cyclops / Fiend deck is less consistent than we are and we can punish stumbles from the deck very well. If they can execute their plan, they are faster than us, which means we will have to kill their creatures. Delver of Secrets is irrelevant since it can never race us on its own. Be wary of Apostle’s Blessing and Dispel, and also Hydroblast in sideboarded games.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Needle Drop, -1 Burst Lightning, +4 Pyroblast, +1 Flame Rift. Use your Pyroblasts to win battles about killing their creatures. They can also kill Nivic Cyclops outright. When their creatures are dead, kill them.

Stompy

Stompy is very consistent and faster than us, which means this is a difficult match up. Don’t kill Quirion Rangers unless they operate on only 1 forest. Rancor will make the race in their favor, so try to kill the targeted creature in response when possible. Howl of the Nightpack is a very strong card against us, and while we sometimes have to play into it and hope they don’t have it, try to plan the game so you can beat it (for instance by keeping up an instant to kill the creature in response, or by not killing creatures at all). Recently Stompy players opt for more resilient plans than fast plans, which is good news for Burn players.

Sideboard Plan: -2 Needle Drop, -2 Flame Rift +2 Martyr of Ashes, +2 Electrickery. You can play Martyr of Ashes early in this match up just to slow them down when they are sculpting their gameplan around it. Of course, it then loses effectiveness when you do use the ability.

Delver

Like Stompy, Delver is also a consistent deck. They also have a fast clock and disruption in the form of counterspells, so this is also a difficult match up. Playing against counterspells requires a bit of training. First run out your Lava Spikes, Chain Lightnings and Rift Bolts, they will often go uncountered since the Delver player will try to use its life total as a resource and hold counterspells for our good cards. Especially a suspended Rift Bolt is difficult to counter since tapping islands on our upkeep can lead to us resolving dangerous cards like Kiln Fiend. After you have run out these spells, start casting your creatures and Flame Rifts so that they use their turn to counter them. Sometimes after this phase we will find they just don’t have it and we can kill them. If not, we move to a more patient style. We will keep drawing cards, stockpiling Lightning Bolts, Burst Lightnings and Fireblasts. Try to play them in a wave, starting at your opponents end of turn, preferably after they have an uneven amount of islands untapped after using Ponder or casting a Phantasmal Bear. If they don’t counter them, draw your card, pass the turn and repeat at the end of their next turn. If they are tapped low or almost killing you, go for the gusto and try to overwhelm their mana or counterspells. Sometimes we will be losing the race and have to kill a flipped delver. A fringe situation that might come up is our Keldon Marauders against their Ninja of the Deep Hours. Do we prevent them from drawing a card or do we attack for 3 damage? The answer is we attack for 3 damage, since as we’ve seen that is the equivalent of us drawing 2 cards, which is way better than them drawing 1 or 2 cards. Don’t forget that Phantasmal Bears does not counter Searing Blaze. Daze is becoming more popular again, but only play around it if you can beat it.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Needle Drop, +4 Pyroblast. Don’t use your Pyroblasts early in the game – use them to push through a key good spell like Kiln Fiend or otherwise hold them until crunch time when you are overloading their mana / counterspells.

Elves

Elves is also a consistent deck, but it is often a bit slower than we are so we can win the race. Their best cards against us are Timberwatch Elves and Wellwisher, they might be worth killing if they swing the race. Quirion Ranger is better in this deck than in Stompy, but I usually still just aim for the opponent.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Needle Drop, +2 Electrickery, +2 Martyr of Ashes. This sideboarding is a little sketchy since I remove four 1cc spells for four 2cc spells, but Electrickery and martyr are good enough against them to do it.

Affinity

Affinty can be inconsistent, but they have the tools to race us with Carapace Forger, Myr Enforcer and Galvanic Blast. Use your creatures to keep them from attacking as long as possible while you try to finish them with burn. If they assemble an Atog combination, the game has been going on for too long. Sometimes you will need to use Searing Blaze without killing a creature just to get 3 damage through. Stay on the lookout for possibilities to use Needle Drop to deal the 4th damage to a creature if needed.

Sideboard Plan: -2 Flame Rift, +2 Smash to Smithereens. We don’t want Flame Rift because it is a liability against this deck which already deals damage in 4-point chuncks. I’ve chosen consistency for my sideboard plan over the way more powerful but worse topdeck Gorilla Shaman. Perhaps this is wrong and should be the other way around. They can have Hydroblast in their sideboard, which is not enough for us to bring in Pyroblast, but do keep an eye out if they can produce a blue mana.

Goblins

Goblins can race us if they have a two power creature on turn 1 or if they can make good Goblin Bushwhacker attacks. This is one match up where it might be difficult to determine if we are winning the race, because the Goblin Bushwhacker and their own burn spells provide the goblin player with a lot of reach.

Sideboard Plan: -2 Flame Rift, -2 Needle Drop, +2 Martyr of Ashes, +2 Electrickery. Don’t play the martyr before you have mana to activate it as well, otherwise it will just get killed. Sometimes the goblin player will side in some number of Sylvok Lifestaff. If you see these in game 2, you can bring in a misers’ Smash to Smithereens for game 3.

Mono Blue Control

Mono Blue Control is a strong, consistent deck, but it is better for us than Delver since they don’t have a fast clock on us, which means we can reliably draw a lot of cards. Their main way of interacting with us is through counterspells. Use the same play style as versus Delver: first run out your Lava Spikes, Chain Lightnings and Rift Bolts, they will often go uncountered since the Mono Blue Control player will try to use its life total as a resource and hold counterspells for our good cards. Especially a suspended Rift Bolt is difficult to counter since tapping islands on our upkeep can lead to us resolving dangerous cards like Kiln Fiend. After you have run out these spells, start casting your creatures and Flame Rifts so that they use their turn to counter them. Sometimes after this phase we will find they just don’t have it and we can kill them. If not, we move to a more patient style. We will keep drawing cards, stockpiling Lightning Bolts, Burst Lightnings and Fireblasts. Try to play them in a wave, starting at your opponents end of turn, preferably after they have an uneven amount of islands untapped after using Ponder. If they don’t counter them, draw your card, pass the turn and repeat at the end of their next turn. If they are tapped low or almost killing you, go for the gusto and try to overwhelm their mana or counterspells. Because they are not killing you fast, it is possible that both players have 7 cards in hand in the mid-game. Don’t play out all your lands: keep them in hand because they represent threats that the control player must respect. You can also discard them to Piracy Charm. Even if you cast 7 cards in a single turn cycle you do not need more than 5 or 6 lands in play. Don’t overestimate the amount of counterspells they have in hand, either: they play around 15-18 in their deck, which means that even if they drew half their deck they only have 7-10, of course minus the ones they already used. Try to play around Miscalculation in these drawn-out games if you can.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Searing Blaze, -4 Needle Drop, -1 Burst Lightning, +4 Pyroblast, +3Curse of the Pierced Heart, +1 Flame Rift, +1 Smash to Smithereens. Because we expect a drawn out game, we can increase the mana costs for our cards a bit, and we can expect to see at least 1 Spire Golem at the other end of the table. Resolving an early Curse of the Pierced Heart means we put the onus to do something on the Mono Blue Control player, which is a nice reversal of fortunes.

Green White Hexproof

Green White Hexproof is a very unfavorable match up since they blank one of our best cards, can race us with a good draw and play maindeck Armadillo Cloak. Some lists even play Lifelink for the extra rub-ins. Our approach is just to hoof it and hope to get there. Block aggressively with your creatures before they get trample from Rancor. If you block a creature without trample enchanted with Lifelink, you can burn your own creature to prevent the lifegain. Even if this is better than the alternative, it still is miserable.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Searing Blaze, -1 Needle Drop, +2 Martyr of Ashes, +2 Electrickery, +1 Flame Rift. Sideboarded games aren’t much better than pre-board games as good GWHex players will know not to get blown out by our sideboard cards. Cross your fingers.

Mono Black and Blue Black Control

The Mono Black and Blue Black Control match ups are similar since their main way to interact with us is through hand disruption. Blue Black Control is an easier match up since they are less consistent, have a slower clock and have too little countermagic to matter. These decks aren’t killing us very fast so we can expect to see a couple more cards than usual. The rats put us into a predicament since on the one hand we want to empty our hand to avoid discarding and the Chittering Rats effect, while on the other hand we want to hold lands to make our Searing Blaze good. Play out your sorceries fast in any case, and look in each situation what the best course of action is. When in doubt, unload your hand except any instants you can cast in response to hand disruption. Holding instants is also a good tactic against Tendrils of Corruption, which is occasionally played. Gray Merchant of Asphodel seems to be the real deal, and can set us back a couple of turns while attacking our life total. You can turn your Instants into Searing Blaze by killing their creatures if he hits the battlefield. A better plan is to kill them before he does.

Sideboard Plan: -4 Needle Drop, +1 Flame Rift, + 3 Curse of the Pierced Heart. Don’t board into Pyroblast against UB, they are not a very good counterspell deck since they don’t play many, and they also have to tap out to play their good spells like Mulldrifter. More testing is necessary to see if Curse of the Pierced Heart is still good enough after Gray Merchant of Asphodel joined the MBC team – my gut feeling is that we prefer to kill them faster rather than later, and the Curse will leave the sideboard in the future.

White Weenie

White Weenie is a slower deck than we are which means we win the race game 1 unless they have Prismatic Strands. Our creatures are often on blocking duty since WW has a lot of small creatures to chump. This is still fine since it still helps us win the race. Searing Blaze is awesome as ever and you will hope to draw it a lot in this match up. Their only ways to alter race calculations are Prismatic Strands, Ramosian Rally, Guardian’s Pledge and Bonesplitter. The pump spells are often not played, so don’t play around them until you’ve seen them.

Sideboard Plan: There are a couple different variations on White Weenie, some (War Falcon) against which Electrickery is great, some (Razor Golem) against which Smash to Smithereens is good. The latter ones are more popular recently. Apply your knowledge from earlier games when sideboarding. In any case, go -4 Needle Drop, +2 Martyr of Ashes, +1 Flaring Pain, +1 Flame Rift. After board this match up becomes worse. How much worse is up to the WW player to decide. If they want they can bring in fifteen backbreaking cards against us. While no one goes that far, it sometimes does become brutally bad. Flaring Pain counteracts Prismatic Strands fairly well and can sometimes help a martyr clean a board with a Crimson Acolyte on it. Remember that you can reveal the Flaring Pain first, then play it in response by holding the Ctrl key while activating the Martyr of Ashes‘ ability. This will help you keep priority. We can’t play more copies of Flaring Pain because they just don’t do damage and drawing multiples is terrible, especially when you don’t need them (and thus would like to have a burn spell in hand). Flaring Pain can also help fight a Rune of Protection:Red. Don’t just concede if you see one, either: every activation costs mana so once in a blue moon you can overwhelm their mana.

Burn

Ah, the mirror. As should be no surprise by now, this is a race in its purest form. The player who can resolve the most spells the fastest wins. Often, this is the player on the play, unless he doesn’t have enough lands. This is the only match up where I would consider mulliganing one land hands, especially if there are multiple (slow) two drops in it. If your opponent plays Goblin Fireslinger, you either kill it immediately or ignore it. It depends of course whether it helps him win the race or not. Kiln Fiend we have to kill. If the game draws out a bit, with both players on a lower life total, you can sometimes steal a game with your instants when your opponent has lethal on the stack. Don’t miss this opportunity when it arises and don’t hand these opportunities to your opponent: sequence your spells correctly.

Sideboard Plan: There is no good sideboard for the mirror. I usually side in my third Flame Rift for a Searing Blaze when I’m on the play, and expecting to win the race. If you suspect your opponent has cut no creatures besides Keldon Marauders side out as many Searing Blaze as you can.

Thank you for reading and I hope you have fun slinging red burn spells in the near future. If you have any comments, questions, for example about single card choices or other match ups, I will be happy to address them in the comments.

Written by
Reinaldo Vrins (Reinaldo Vrins)
Twitter: ReinVrins