Decks I Love: Burn

Burn is one of the most iconic decks in all of Magic’s history. It has been around since the very beginning, and has served as the great differentiator of “decks that I brewed after having 7 shots” from competitive decks. It is a great deck for new players to pick up, having a brutally straightforward gameplan. At the same time, it really rewards intelligent decision making, while pulling no punches when the pilot makes a mistake.

STA Lightning Bolt

This is THE burn card. 1 red mana, 1 card, instant speed, 3 damage. It is both the benchmark for every other burn spell as well the signpost card for the strategy of burn.

The thesis of the burn deck is this: pack your deck with as many burn spells as possible, and then throw them at your opponent’s face to reduce their lifetotal from 20 to 0. With the benchmark of burn spells being 1 mana, 1 card, 3 damage, and assuming your opponent does not affect their own life total, you need to resolve exactly 7 burn spells pointed at your opponent’s face. Hitting your land drop each turn, this can be accomplished as early as turn 4 (and, in some builds/formats with access to different card pools, even earlier).

Of course, we start the game with only 7 cards in hand, so there are no guarantees that we’ll be able to hit the mythical perfect 7 burn spell game. Not only that, but you can only run 4 copies of a given card in a deck, so burn decks can’t be 44 copies of Lightning Bolt and 16 lands. Finally, our opponent can of course interact with us through either countering our burn spells or gaining life.

To bring the platonic ideal of a burn deck into reality, burn decks are typically constructed with a fairly low land count, as many effective copies (cards that are very similar to one another, but named differently) of Lightning Bolt as possible, and some number of more “permanent” sources of damage (be that creatures like Goblin Guide or enchantments like Sulfuric Vortex). The gameplan is typically also slightly altered from “throw my bolts at my opponents face” to “play an aggressive turn 1 creature, bolt any problematic creatures my opponent plays, and throw the rest of my bolts at their face.”

Obviously, I’m simplifying a lot here, and experienced burn pilots have different takes and play differently depending on the matchup, but the point remains the same: the burn deck is trying to reduce the opponent’s life total to 0 quickly. Thus, burn is typically considered an aggressive deck, though it does have a bit of a “control” gameplan (since typically your burn spells can also hit creatures (and some typical sideboard cards can interact with other permanents as well)) and some “combo” potential (chaining together burn spells when your opponent is not expecting it).

The major weakness of burn decks is that they typically do not run any form of card advantage or filtering. We (hopefully) start the game with a 7 card hand and some number of lands and spells, and then get our single natural card in each draw step, and that’s it (and sometimes that card is a stinkin' land when all you needed was a bolt to win the game). Thus, though we burn bright, we burn quickly: in a long game the burn deck is heavily disadvantaged, as the opponent will usually have more resources than us over the long term. Likewise, lifegain is backbreaking, as every 3 points of life is essentially 1 card from us. As I mentioned before, we can extend our effective duration by playing more permanent sources of damage, but this typically comes at the cost of speed. Finding a good balance here is crucial in constructing an effective burn deck.

As mentioned before, burn decks are great for new players. The gameplan is fairly straightforward, they are typically pretty budget friendly to construct, and it really helps players internalize the value that the different resources in Magic play. However, many players consider burn to be “boring”, or a stepping-stone deck that you can play while you figure out the meta of the format. In some sense they are right. Burn is a brutalist Magic deck: everything is on display, and what you see is what you get. Many games can feel “samey” when you have so many effective copies of Lightning Bolt. That said, though burn decks are easy for players to pick up, the archetype rewards deep experience with different builds and familiarity with metas and matchups.

Burn has been my favorite deck for a very long time. I love being able to bring a 100 dollar deck to a Legacy tournament and hold my own against players packing decks worth thousands of dollars. I love the rush of topdecking a bolt for the win. I love learning that I should have spent 2 bolts on their Lagonna-Band Trailblazer before they suited it up with lifelink and +4/+4. Burn is a great deck, and I hope you have a deck you love just as much, even if it doesn’t play Lightning Bolt.

Published on 2022-02-01