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Build a Better Burn Deck

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Burn decks seem to consist of about ¼ of the decks I see posted on Magic sites. They come in all shapes and sizes, costs and power levels. Most of them are quite… interesting, and so I gathered all the information I could about Burn decks into an article in hopes of offering a deck-building resource for people trying to make one. This should help many people avoid making common deck building mistakes I made myself. I’ve posted along with this article 4 Burn decks of different caliber to give you examples of how to build and not to build. Because of the enormous amount of Burn spells available in Magic, it’s quite difficult sometimes to make judicious choices about which ones to include in a deck. Let’s consider the power level a few common spells found in Burn decks.

Lightning Bolt: 3 damage at the cost of R. It doesn’t get more straightforward or efficient than that. Now that it is being reprinted in core sets, it is cheap and available and should be included in every single Burn deck.

Shock: It and all of its variants, Burst Lightning, Firebolt, Seal of Fire etc. Is it an acceptable downgraded version of Lightning Bolt that should be included in Burn decks just for the sake of having copies of a card that do more or less the same thing? No it is not. Shock deals 1 less damage for the same price, which is in fact a huge difference that cannot be ignored. Damage to cost ratio is too low. In fact when choosing between Shock and more expensive spells that do more damage in a single card, you’re best off taking the more expensive one. It has a greater damage/card ratio.

Blaze: Including all of its variants, Fireball, Kaervek's Torch, Demonfire etc. Most players building their first Burn deck will think this is an acceptable card. It provides an unknown amount of damage (presumably a big number) and kills the opponent in the later game. Blaze is not efficient because it will always have damage = mana spent + R, which no matter how much you put into, is still very inefficient for a Burn deck. A Burn deck aims to kill in the early game, or as fast as possible. An x spell shouldn’t ever be needed because cards with set damage will be faster and more efficient.

Fireblast: Now why would a 6 mana spell be included and not Blaze? Because the secret is in the alternate casting cost, which, if you’re using it to kill your opponent, is essentially a free 4 damage. This effect outdoes itself in the field of both damage/card and cost/damage. This is a back-bone of Burn decks that should not be ignored.

Lava Spike: 3 damage for R, but unlike Lightning Bolt it only hits opponents. This is an acceptable downgrade, as it hits opponents for the same amount of damage, and your opponent is the only thing you want to deal damage to.

Magma Jet: This is an interesting card in that for 1R, it is extremely inefficient in damage. However, Scry 2 is an ability that should be noted. It allows you to look at the top cards of your library, choose to send surplus Mountains or that extra Fireblast to the bottom of your library, increasing your chances of getting useful burn you need to win. Having played with this card, I see its advantages, but I feel that if you find a better burn alternative, you’d best side with that instead.

Pyromancer Ascension: Oh dear, where do I start with this card? Let me put it this way: Anything that isn’t dealing damage to your opponent immediately is a waste of precious mana. With Pyromancer Ascension, you must invest 2 mana, then play at least 4 spells to double the damage of your next spell, and they must be doubles. I’ve seen this card played much too often in Burn decks since Zendikar was released. The chances of you drawing doubles of cards in a deck are weak and not something you should expect to see regularly. This is poor investment of mana, and is even worse than Furnace of Rath in Burn decks, another card which is too big of an investment for the cost. You should be playing cheap burn spells that already exceed their damage/cost ratio instead.

One last example card, Rite of Flame: including all mana generating red cards like Seething Song, Desperate Ritual, etc. Burn decks are sensitive to Card Advantage and Power/Cost ratio of cards. Rite of Flame deals no damage, and it will only speed up temporarily, using up a card in your deck that could be dealing damage (Making it like a wasted card). It may allow you to play an extra spell, but you used an extra card to do so, and that is a huge disadvantage. And often, you may draw this card when you don't need it (you already have enough land or you would have wanted to draw more burn instead). Rite of Flame is made for decks that want to build a big amount of mana to achieve a high cost, like Dragonstorm.

A Really Bad Burn Deck

Tags: 
Red
Colors
Artifact2
Land24
Red36
Vanguard2
Converted Mana Cost
02
118
28
38
41
52
61
Type
Artifact2
Basic Land22
Creature10
Enchantment1
Instant16
Land2
Sorcery9
Vanguard2

This is an example of a terrible Burn deck. Plenty of 1 ofs, no consistency. Many spells are too expensive, there are no real efficient burn spells. There are too many lands. It's pretty bad. For an Article.

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With these example cards in mind, allow me to make a list of efficient 1 drop burn cards that can be included in your next Burn deck:

Most of these are immediate 4-ofs in every Burn deck. However the last 3 should be observed with caution. Black Vise may have less of an impact on certain decks that empty their hands quickly. However, tell yourself that as long as it has accomplished 3 or more damage to an opponent, it has fulfilled its purpose. This makes it an ideal first turn drop, since your opponent starts presumably with 7 cards in hand. It then may even do more than 3 damage. Unfortunately any card that an opponent has control over is not quite so effective, so this is also a smart thing to sideboard out later (more on sideboard strategy later). Mana Clash is an often forgotten burn card, with huge potential for great or horrible results. It's great fun to see your opponent squirm because he only has 3 life left and you played this... Then again it's not so fun when this ends up dealing 6 to you and 1 to your opponent. The odds: the opponent taking damage: 50% (duh), you taking damage: 50%, both of you taking damage: 25%, Mana Clash having no effect: 25%. It all boils down to one thing: Do you feel lucky? This card is good if you’re into gambling for a good time, but should be avoided for serious play. I tossed 2 in my Burn deck for a while, with some great results. A Burn mage won’t care about the damage done to him/herself. As long as it does 3+ damage to the opponent, I’m very happy. This is the mentality you should employ with a Burn deck. A Lightning Bolt spin-off which you must absolutely stay away from is Shard Volley. I tried running it in my Burn deck thinking ''oh hey, another 3 for 1 damage card! This is perfect! This drawback will be kind of like Fireblasts!'' No it is not. The huge difference is that you're still paying for it, instead of paying an alternate casting cost! In addition, too many cards requiring a Mountain sacrifice is very bad for the deck and between Shard Volley and Fireblast, I would much rather use the latter. Shard Volley ruined so many of my games and I felt so stupid for thinking they were good! To make up for the sacrifices you would need to add more Mountains to the deck, and adding land just to be able to add another card is not smart, since you’ll be drawing into less burn in the end. With the 1 cc cards in Burn covered, let’s move to the next step of building a Burn deck.

An Awful Burn Deck

Tags: 
Red
Colors
Artifact1
Land22
Red40
Converted Mana Cost
02
125
28
35
41
Type
Artifact1
Basic Land22
Creature10
Enchantment6
Instant13
Sorcery11

An attempt at consistency and Synergy is made, but in all the wrong ways. Burn decks aren't looking for Synergy but rather ''individual power'' of cards towards killing the opponent. Draw cards are present, but no good ones. Still too many lands. Not a good Burn deck. For an article

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Cards with 2+ casting cost are to be scrutinized thoroughly. Which of the hundreds of burn cards are worth playing? Many of them complete several functions, however the first and foremost should be lowering your opponents’ life total. Popular choices are:

Char: With Ravnica block came the first of a growing series of 3cc for 4 damage deals. Char is now the least useful in a burn deck, since you can use Flames of the Blood Hand or Flame Javelin. Flame Javelin is the most used and probably the most useful, since it can hit creatures or players (single cards that dealt 4+ damage to creatures were scarce before Char. Many burn players were forced to often use 2 cards to kill 1 bothersome creature. Ergo loss of Card Advantage). Flame Javelin is therefore an interesting addition to a Burn deck if you need occasional creature destruction.

An excellent card that fortunately I see fairly often in Burn decks is Flame Rift. If you’ve never heard of it, get yourself a playset. It’s often considered on the same grounds as the 1 mana burn spells. Remember that damage to you is unimportant; your opponent is dying faster. Another important card to include if you are to be playing in Legacy or Vintage tournaments is Price of Progress. Undeniably useful card for those formats where non-basics are a normal appearance.

Problems with masses of creatures or tokens? Don’t bother with Pyroclasm. If you can get the same effect but dealing damage to opponents at the same time, then do it. Cards like Flamebreak, Volcanic Fallout and Slagstorm are interesting options. If you’re expecting to run into counterspells, go for the Fallout. If you want raw power, use Flamebreak. If you have Slagstorm or can’t afford the other 2, then it is still a decent alternative. Dealing damage and killing creatures all the while is among the ways Red Burn gets pseudo card advantage. They spent mana playing Dark Confidant and Phyrexian Negator? Punish them by killing both with 1 card and still dealing damage to them.

Creature Burn: I give this its own section in the article because it is quite particular. Burn decks in different formats can vary a lot, mostly in the use of creatures. Cards I’ve seen in Burn decks are Ball Lightning, Goblin Guide, Keldon Champion, Keldon Marauders, Spark Elemental, Grim Lavamancer, Mogg Fanatic, Boggart Ram-Gang, Blistering Firecat, Hellspark Elemental among many others. Burn spells are lacking in formats seeing Kuldotha Red or RDW, so these decks supplement with creatures that can possibly burn as effectively as any other. Some don’t really even qualify as Burn decks, even if the strategy is quite similar, in the Case of Kuldotha or Ponza. I will choose to ignore in this article all decks types that don’t really have burn as the main strategy and will also concentrate the article for the casual player. I simply wish to let you know that direct burn spells are not the only option, particularly if you are building for Standard or Extended. But you can clearly see I’m not making this article for those formats.

A Decent Burn Deck

Tags: 
Red
Colors
Hybrid4
Land20
Red38
Converted Mana Cost
19
211
318
64
Type
Basic Land14
Creature5
Instant19
Land6
Sorcery18

Good Burn cards are used. Decent draw with Browbeat and Magma Jet. Average mass removal. Still bad Synergy is present. Barbarian Ring and Sandstone Needle are good choices. Not a bad Burn deck. For an article

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I would say that among the choices I’ve listed above, the most interesting to include would be Ball Lightning, Goblin Guide, Spark Elemental and Grim Lavamancer. Ball Lightning costs 3 mana, which is expensive, and when you think about it, for RRR, you could spend it on three Lightning Bolts for 9 unblockable instead of 6. The difference here is that Ball Lightning is 6 damage packed into a single card, which in the end is more efficient in damage/card ratio, making up for the lacking power/card. It allows for possible 3rd turn kills. However, it’s blockable, nets you a life thanks to Swords to Plowshares (great…) and can end up having much less of an impact than it ought to. Nevertheless it remains an excellent choice for Burn decks. Goblin Guide is very interesting because he has the potential to deal more damage than Lightning Bolt and counterparts. A great first turn drop, he fulfills his duties when he deals 4 or 6 damage to your opponent. That amount of damage at the investment of only R is exceptional. Trading with a Dark Confidant or something is also not a bad deal in the end. Spark Elemental is essentially a blockable Lightning Bolt, which ends up not being so effective like Ball Lightning. Play them with caution, if at all. Grim Lavamancer is a bit like Goblin Guide, minus the top-decking your opponent and it is a turn slower, it’s ability costs R to activate but deals damage without combat, so really it’s up to your judgment (I don’t consider needing graveyard fodder being a disadvantage in a Burn deck, honestly).

Burn decks run out of steam very quickly, which is why many players add draw cards in their burn decks. Not a bad idea in principle, however there are very few drawing red cards available, much less good ones. Popular cards I see being run are Browbeat, Wheel of Fate, Needle Drop and Wheel of Fortune. I will add that some people choose to splash Blue for draw, but that’s another story, and unless you plan on playing with an Ancestral Recall, you better make sure that’s an acceptable compromise. Others will run cards like Howling Mine, which is not so effective because it nets you nothing initially, gives your opponent additional cards, and generally lacks the explosiveness that Burn needs. Browbeat is by far the most common draw spell seen in Burn decks, and it’s true it can be quite effective. Having played with it for a while however, I can tell you right now that Browbeat slows you down before it speeds you up again, in that the initial 3 mana spent generally forces you to end the turn to play what you drew the following turn. Say your opponent is at 6 life, and instead of drawing Browbeat, you draw your Chain Lightning, you use it right away, and you can expect your next spell to be another burn spell. Say you draw Browbeat, you play it, your opponent chooses to let you draw 3, then you will need at least another 2 burn spells to win. It boils down to about the same thing, I’d even say Browbeat is slightly better. I would switch up the Browbeats for creature burn instead in most cases, since the continuing source of damage is often more useful than the possibility of drawing into new burn spells, which generates no damage in itself. In most cases you would run Magma Jet instead. Needle Drop is a waste of a red mana, since it doesn’t do enough damage to be worth the cantrip. Wheel of Fate is probably the worst of the bunch, since it will only be resolving on the 6th turn, which by then you could have won had you spent that 2 mana on burn spells instead. However it pretty much is game over when it resolves. Wheel of Fortune is restricted in Vintage and illegal in every other format. There is a reason for this. The power you get from this card is incredible. It completely refreshes your hand with a new set of burn for the low cost of 2R. It outdoes every other red draw card out there; however you can only have one in your deck if you plan to stay at least Vintage legal.

Lands in a Burn deck are something of a mystery for beginner builders. You want to have enough mana in your opening hand to play all of your spells, but you don’t want too many because then you won’t have enough burn to kill your opponent. What to do? Well, if the maximum amount of mana you will be paying in your deck is of 3 or 4, I would suggest between 17 and 20 lands. I personally am comfortable running 18. Non-basic lands can also be interesting options, however you can’t just include anything or in too great a quantity. If you plan on running Fireblast in your Burn deck (which you should) then you should be running a minimum of Mountains for it to be effective. 12 Mountains should cut it close. This does not stop you from running fetchlands, which is in fact a good idea. Using fetchlands effectively reduces the chances of you drawing more lands when you use one, because once you have one fetchland cracked, another card is gone from your library, at the minimal cost of 1 life. The difference may not be tangible, but it is there. I wouldn’t bust my budget for them though, they really aren’t all that necessary. A card I often see being used in Burn decks is Barbarian Ring. This land is very nice in that not only does it give you mana to play your spells, but once you’re done with it you can sacrifice it do deal more damage. If you were to run these, I suggest not using more than 2, as it can really damage you if drawn in doubles and can be a pain when you want to use Fireblast. A final non-basic that I feel is an indispensible in a Burn deck is Sandstone Needle. ''But how is this different from Rite of Flame?'' you might think. The difference is that Sandstone Needle provides 2 extra mana at no cost, and the turn on which you play your burn spells (particularly turn 1) generally matters very little. Sandstone Needle isn't a lost card because you didn’t invest anything to play it, and you can use it twice. It offers acceleration for 2 turns rather than 1, which makes all the difference. It enables 3rd turn kills for Burn decks, Rite of Flame doesn't. Sandstone Needle is definitely a playset for this deck.

Sideboarding strategy can be quite important depending on how aware your environment is of Burn decks. Are white decks running damage prevention, Ivory Mask or Leyline of Sanctity? Is blue making your life miserable with counterspells, Energy Field or Arcane Laboratory? Should you be running more board sweepers or spot removal? You must consider all of these things when building your sideboard. A definite card to include is Anarchy, which is in fact the only card that can remove white enchantments. Red Elemental Blast gets rid of blue stuff, obviously, so it’s always nice to have some in the sideboard. Run more mass removal like suggested before. Many Burn and Goblin decks also ran white in the sideboard for Swords to Plowshares, which is now easily replaced with Path to Exile. This may be an interesting option for spot removal. Everlasting Torment is a multipurpose enchantment that will make sure life gain and damage prevention is not an option, as well as heavily handicapping creatures by making all your spells cause Wither. Shattering Spree is also quite useful if you’re overrun with artifacts. Sideboard options change somewhat when you enter Legacy or Vintage tournaments. Cards like Tormod’s Crypt become staple, Null Rod is a great choice to destroy certain archtypes based around artifacts.

Of course there are alternate versions that move away from traditional spell burn. Great ways to change up your Burn deck (and often cheaper) could be Form of the Dragon Burn, Runeflare Trap combo Burn, Draw-Fish, Land Destruction with Burn or using a tribal backed with burn, like Goblins, Elemental, or even Elf. Burn is a great side strategy that will complement many deck types!

I’ve left out so many aspects of Burn, I know, but I need to stop somewhere. I certainly hope this helped deck builders in their card choices and that I helped make your Burn deck the very best it can be. Good Luck! Please leave your comments and opinions!

T1 Burn

This Burn deck packs the very best Burn spells available. Goblin Guide attacks relentlessly, the perfect 1rst turn drop. Wheel of Fortune and Magma Jet provide draw. Flamebreak is a Pyroclasm and a Lightning Bolt in one. Sandstone Needle speeds up the deck enormously, allowing earlier kills (up to turn 3). Arid Mesa searches for Sacred Foundry when in need of white mana to cast Path to Exile and also does some slight deck thinning.

The Sideboard should be pretty clear. Anarchy to get rid of Leyline of Sanctity and other pesky white cards, Red Elemental Blast because it's just so useful. Smash to Simthereens and Null Rod pin down artifact decks and certain archtypes. Finally Tormod's Crypt against graveyard tech.

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